TOPICS > Politics

Congress Urged to Pass Immigration Bill This Year

March 14, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Under pressure from his hosts in Guatemala and Mexico, President Bush has been talking this week about a new immigration law for the United States.

Today, appearing with Mexican President Felipe Calderon at a Yucatan Peninsula resort, President Bush sounded his most optimistic yet about getting immigration reform through the U.S. Congress.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I feel pretty good about it. I must — you know, I don’t want to predict legislative successes, but I can tell you my mood.

Secondly, I’m optimistic because Republicans in the Senate are working with Democrats in the Senate. We’re facilitating that work. The administration is very much involved with helping the senators find common ground to the point where we can move a bill as quickly as possible out of the Senate so it gets to the House of Representatives.

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush has repeatedly called on Congress to overhaul immigration law by creating a guest-worker program and legalizing, without amnesty, the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Last year, the Senate passed broad immigration legislation President Bush largely backed. But the House failed to pass it. Instead, Congress adopted a bill supporting a 700-mile fence along the border, and the president signed it.

More recently, Republican Sen. John McCain joined forces with Democrat Ted Kennedy to work on a new bill. The president acknowledged today there were still obstacles.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Look, amnesty’s not going to fly. There’s not going to be automatic citizenship. It just won’t work. People in the United States don’t support that, and neither do I.

Nor will kicking people out of the United States work. It’s not practical; it’s not a realistic solution. Some may articulate that, but it’s empty talk. And so, therefore, there’s got to be a middle ground.

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush said he was looking forward to working with Sen. Kennedy to reach that common ground, but he did not talk about prospects for the bill in the House.

Mexican President Calderon also fielded immigration questions, one about reports of his relatives working in the United States.

FELIPE CALDERON, President of Mexico (through translator): Yes, I do have family in the United States. And what I can tell you is that these are people who work and respect that country. They pay their taxes to the government. They probably handle that which you eat, the lettuce, et cetera. These are people who respect the United States.

I am from Michoacan. And in Michoacan, we have 4 million people; 2 million of these Michoacanos are in the States. We want them to come back. We want them to find jobs here in Mexico. We miss them.

These are our best people. These are bold people; they’re young; they’re strong; they’re talented; they have overcome tremendous adversity. We’re working so that they can come back to their country someday.

RAY SUAREZ: The news conference wrapped up President Bush’s five-nation Latin America trip. He returned to Washington this afternoon.

Proposals on the Hill

Steven Camarota
Center for Immigration Studies
Basically what the president wants is that illegal aliens don't have to go home. They will go into some kind of intermediate status and then eventually get their green cards for permanent residence and citizenship.

RAY SUAREZ: And for two views on the prospects for the immigration bill in Congress, we turn to Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter controls on illegal immigration.

And Angela Kelley, deputy director for the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group which is part of the coalition for comprehensive immigration reform.

And, Angela Kelley, you heard the president today staking out a middle ground between amnesty and trying to kick out 12 million people. He said the answer is somewhere in the middle. Is that the shape that the bills winding their way up the food chain on the Hill will take?

ANGELA KELLEY, National Immigration Forum: Absolutely. I think the president has it absolutely correct that we need to find that middle ground. And we saw the Senate do that last year.

Look, we have to have a bipartisan solution. We know that that's the only thing that's going to pass on Capitol Hill. And it has to be a comprehensive solution, because that's the only thing that's going to work on the ground to find a realistic and practical solution to what is a very broken system.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Camarota, to you, is that the shape of the proposals now starting to gel on the Hill?

STEVEN CAMAROTA, Center for Immigration Studies: I think what we're seeing is what might be called a comprehensive amnesty. Basically what the president wants is that illegal aliens don't have to go home. They will go into some kind of intermediate status and then eventually get their green cards for permanent residence and citizenship.

And by anyone's definition, except perhaps the president, that's an amnesty. And that's the kind of comprehensive amnesty that he wants.

Now, we're also likely to see some really large increases in future legal immigration as part of the bill, but it's not clear that the advocates of the comprehensive amnesty can even work out their own differences.

Congressional alliances and opinion

Angela Kelley
National Immigration Reform
So what we're talking about is a bipartisan solution to get a handle on who's here, and to get a handle on who's coming in the future, and for once have a functional immigration system.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, someone who's counting noses and watching how these things are working, are there large blocs of support now starting to coalesce around these various proposals?

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Well, what seems to have happened is that the Democrats and Republicans -- most Democrats and a modest group of Republicans -- were trying to work out some kind of comprehensive amnesty, but that seems to have broken down now, but that could come back together again.

And what Kennedy has said, and apparently McCain, as well, is we can't seem to bring this together, and so we're going to reintroduce some old legislation that was passed by the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, which basically increased legal immigration and legalized those here illegally as the sort of basis to start it, because they couldn't work out their own agreements.

RAY SUAREZ: Angela Kelley, do you accept Steven Camarota's definition of this being amnesty in all but name?

ANGELA KELLEY: Absolutely not. I'm not sure what debate he's following, but it's not the debate that we're following on Capitol Hill. There is no amnesty in the picture.

What we're talking about is a practical, realistic solution to a very pressing problem: We have 12 million people in this country, and we don't know who they are.

They're folks who are working hard. They're paying taxes, but they're living below the radar screen. And that isn't good for our country's economy; it isn't good for our country's security. So, no, we're not talking about amnesty, but...

RAY SUAREZ: Let me stop you right there, because maybe you're just using different terms and talking about basically the same thing. I think when Steven Camarota uses the term -- and he'll correct me if I'm wrong -- if it puts people who are currently in the country out of status on some sort of path that may end in permanent legal residence in this country, that's amnesty.

ANGELA KELLEY: That's not my definition of amnesty.

RAY SUAREZ: OK.

ANGELA KELLEY: What we're talking about is, look, we need to know who's here. We need to, over time, after they pay their taxes, they have clean -- no criminal records, they've gone through all the security screenings, they've been working hard, they've worked in the past, they're working in the future, these are folks who are in our country right now.

And if they learn English and show that they want to be part of this American dream, then it makes a ton of sense that we give them a shot at that.

We can't deport 12 million people, Ray. We've tried that, and that has failed abysmally.

So what we're talking about is a bipartisan solution to get a handle on who's here, and to get a handle on who's coming in the future, and for once have a functional immigration system. If you want to call it amnesty, if you want to call it apples, you can call it whatever you want, but that's a solution.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you call it amnesty?

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Sure, but if you like legalization, it's the same thing. Look, people who broke the law are going to get an exemption from the law. Normally, if you come into the United States illegally, you should go home.

These individuals are going to be able to stay, and work, and travel to and from the United States, and eventually get permanent residence and citizenship. Now, you know, if it quacks like a duck and swims like a duck and looks like a duck, it's a duck. And this is an amnesty.

RAY SUAREZ: And is there enough support in the House and Senate for something that includes that path to regular status to be passed this year?

STEVEN CAMAROTA: It's very hard to say. If you'd ask me a few months ago, I would have said yes, but the inability of the people who seemed to support that in the Senate to not even be able to sort of come together themselves on it, and the fact that, in the House, someone like Rahm Emanuel, leader in the Democratic Party, has said, "Look, we need 60, we need 80 Republican votes."

They want the political cover. They want to say it's bipartisan. It is almost inconceivable that they'd ever get that. So what he seems to be doing is giving himself an exit, to say, "Look, we didn't pass it. We didn't have the Republican support," because what they really don't want to be is the party of citizenship for illegal aliens.

That's not a political winner, and so they want Republican support in the House. They don't have that much of it. And even in the Senate they haven't even gotten their act together.

The timing of reform

Steven Camarota
Center for Immigration Studies
If you ask a false question and say, "Should we make everyone leave a week from next Tuesday, or, barring that, don't we have to give them legal status?" Well, the public sort of divides.

RAY SUAREZ: Does a bill that proposes bringing these people into status in large numbers have a shot this year? And do you agree with Steven Camarota that it has to have bipartisan support in order to work?

ANGELA KELLEY: It absolutely has a shot this year. And a USA Today-Gallup poll that came out today shows that 59 percent of Americans -- 59 percent of Americans -- support giving undocumented folks over time a path to citizenship.

How many support Steve's solution? Less than a quarter. How many people support just giving them work permits but never a shot at the American dream and eventual citizenship? Only 15 percent. These are pretty potent numbers, Ray.

We've had this debate for many years. This is the best chance we have in a generation to get it done and get it done right. And I think members of both parties know that.

We're on the brink of finally getting a grasp on our nation's immigration policy. I mean, just think about that. So people could enter legally, so workers have rights, so wages aren't being undermined, so that we know who's in this country, and moms aren't afraid to take their kids to a clinic, a woman isn't afraid to call the police if she's hurt, families aren't separated because of these raids.

I mean, that is a very different world than we've had to date, and I think we're very close to getting it done. People like John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Arlen Specter, these are prominent Republicans, no-nonsense, Larry Craig, Lindsey Graham. They get that. And on the Senate side, Democrats alike, and in the House.

RAY SUAREZ: Angela just named a raft of Republicans. Are these people who you think are lost to your view of how it should go?

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Well, I think that -- yes, last year they voted for something. They may have less incentive now that the Democrats are in charge, but clearly these are individuals who have always indicated their desire for a legalization, an amnesty.

Look, looking at the polls, this is the only thing that stands in the way of what Angie wants. All the big interest groups are on her side, whether it's the Catholic Church, most of the labor unions, the business groups, the ethnic advocacy groups. What prevents this thing from sailing through? The American people hate it.

If you ask a false question and say, "Should we make everyone leave a week from next Tuesday, or, barring that, don't we have to give them legal status?" Well, the public sort of divides.

But if you say, look, how about across-the-board enforcement at the border, at the work sites, stop illegals from getting in-state college tuition, stop them from getting drivers' licenses, and make them go home? Two-thirds, three-fourths of the American people want that. And if she's right, then the whole behavior of Congress makes no sense.

If Americans really want citizenship for illegal aliens, why doesn't Congress get it? All the interest groups want it. The only thing that's stopping it is the American people.

A change in mood on the Hill?

Angela Kelley
National Immigration Reform
[Hispanics] voted for Democrats in very strong numbers for the first time in a long time. Why? Because they were dissed by the House Republicans.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, the president said today in Mexico that the mood in Congress had changed. You just heard Steve say that maybe it hasn't changed enough for these things that the president proposed to happen, that it hasn't.

ANGELA KELLEY: Look, as policymakers, these guys know that they have to come up with a solution, and they want to get it done and get it done right. And the Senate last year passed a decent bill. It's got some problems that need to be fixed, but we've got the basic architecture, the blueprint, if you will.

Republicans are meeting to try to work out some of the minor differences, Democrats the same thing. But they are on the path to getting a bill done.

They have to deliver on this, both as a policy matter and as a political matter. It is in the interests of both parties to get this done and to get it done and off the table this year. And I think they will.

RAY SUAREZ: Because if they don't get it done this year?

ANGELA KELLEY: Look, we've got -- the fastest growing voting bloc are Latinos. They turned out in higher numbers in '06 than they ever have before, and they flipped their vote. They were voting for Republicans in very strong numbers, and it was making the Republicans happy.

That changed in November. They voted for Democrats in very strong numbers for the first time in a long time. Why? Because they were dissed by the House Republicans.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, that has to happen this year?

STEVEN CAMAROTA: No, I think what we need is to begin to actually enforce the law and wait two or three or four years until we actually get a handle on it. And then if we want to come back and grant amnesty, we can think about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Camarota, Angela Kelley, thank you both.

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Thank you.

ANGELA KELLEY: Thank you.