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As Immigration Reform Returns to Agenda, Republicans Counter With ‘Achieve Act’

November 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Two retiring Republican senators have introduced a new plan for immigration reform that grants legal status but not citizenship to young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents. Ray Suarez talks to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., one of the authors of the plan, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.
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MARGARET WARNER: Next tonight: a look at the future of immigration reform.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had a clear message today in two languages: Now is the time for comprehensive immigration reform, after years on the back burner.

Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez:

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ, D-Ill.: For years and years, our caucus been fighting for immigrants to our nation. For years, I have asked, we have asked for one simple thing fairness, fairness for people who work hard, pay taxes, and make America a better place for all of us. And what was the result? A Congress that refused to act.

RAY SUAREZ: The issue was also largely ignored during the campaign. But the president’s reelection was bolstered in part by the 71 percent of Hispanic voters who supported him. Now Republicans have joined in promoting reform.

Yesterday, retiring Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jon Kyl introduced the Achieve Act for young undocumented immigrants.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, R-Tex.: There is a very time-sensitive issue of these young people who have gone to schools in America. And we think the best thing that we can do to utilize their talents and the education they have received is to give them a legal status.

RAY SUAREZ: The bill would grant legal residence for those who pursue higher education or serve the U.S. military. Unlike the DREAM Act, which failed to get through Congress, the Achieve Act wouldn’t provide a path to full citizenship. And that is a sticking point for most Democrats.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez:

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: They problem with the Achieve Act is, it doesn’t achieve the dream of the young people who aspire to fully participate in American life, who only know one flag that they pledge allegiance to. That is the flag of the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, Sen. Kyl said Tuesday, the Republican bill can be a first step toward broader measures.

SEN. JON KYL, R-Ariz.: It will begin the discussion. And it may be that it will lead to a series of smaller steps next year, rather than comprehensive reform. But, either way, I think focusing on certain specific issues like this preliminarily is a good way to understand what the issues are and to try to build a consensus over time.

RAY SUAREZ: And either way, immigration reform appears to be back on the agenda for the new Congress, opening for business in January.

Where does the immigration debate go from here?

We get the views of two members of Congress. Kay Bailey Hutchison is a Republican senator from Texas. And Luis Gutierrez is a Democratic congressman from Illinois.

Senator, how does your and Sen. Kyl’s new Achieve proposal differ from the DREAM Act that failed to pass the Senate at the end of 2010?

KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Our proposal gives legality to those young people who come here, they have known no other country but America because they were here early. And they’re going to get an education or they’re going to get a vocational degree of some kind or they’re going to serve in the military. And they will have a legal status.

Where it differs is that, unless they decide to pursue citizenship, it is not an automatic.

If they do pursue citizenship, which they can under the law as it is today, they would go behind the people who are already in line, so that there is a fairness in the system to those who have waited for years to become regularized, but they will have a preference in that they will be here legally, can work, and build up all of their seniority while they are waiting in the line.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Senator, would you say the prospects for a bill of this kind have changed, have gotten better since the election?

KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Yes, I do think that people are now realizing that we have got to have immigration reform.

And speaking only for myself, I believe that doing immigration reform in pieces is going to be achievable, rather than trying to do comprehensive, which gets bogged down in extraneous issues that make it very hard to come to a total, big conclusion.

RAY SUAREZ: Rep. Gutierrez, today, the Hispanic Caucus laid out a set of principles it would want to see in any immigration reform bills. Given what you and the caucus members said today, is the senator’s achieve proposal at least a place to begin the conversation?

LUIS GUTIERREZ: You know, it is a step in the right direction. It takes us away from a Republican platform and a candidate for president, Romney, who said we should just have them self-deport, that is, pack your bags and leave.

Millions of American citizen children have undocumented parents. Thousands of Americans are married to undocumented spouses.

Look, it’s a destructive force, our broken immigration system. But I don’t think that — I think, so, in that sense, it’s a step in the right direction because she’s saying, what the senator is saying and the proposal is saying is, they can stay.

It’s a realization that they’re not simply going to disappear one day and leave the country, and that they have a rightful place in the United States of America. What we’d like to say and one of our principles as we have articulated today is we want them to be citizens of the United States and we want them to have a clear path to that.

Now, I understand when the senator says that they should be put at the back of the line. I get that part. Look, that’s why you have to do comprehensive immigration reform, because under comprehensive immigration reform, we say there should be no backlog.

There should be no permanent resident, there should be no citizen who has petitioned for their wife or their husband or their minor children or their brothers and sisters. Those people should come and be reunited.

And once we take care of that backlog, obviously, then we can put these young people — but these young people should have a special place in the line, because, as the senator says, this is the only country they have ever known.

And, you know, they swear allegiance. They love this country. It’s the only one they know. And in the end, we have said we will give them a pathway to stay permanently the United States if they will serve in the military.

The highest tax any citizen of any nation can pay, any individual can pay to a nation is that of their blood and their limb. And if they’re willing to do that, we should give them a clear pathway to American citizenship, because that’s what they really deserve.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator, just a moment ago, you were talking about doing this in a phased way, piece by piece. It sounds like the Hispanic Caucus is looking for comprehensive reform.

And, earlier today, Sen. Menendez says the community speaks with one voice on this issue. Is comprehensive reform too heavy a lift, do you think, in the next Congress?

KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: You know, Ray, I was in on the negotiations which went on for months with Sen. Kennedy and Sen. McCain and others.

We tried very hard to come up with a balanced, comprehensive immigration reform. And what we found is that if you took one step — say you’re talking about the DREAM Act or the young people who are here and we want to have them achieve — you take that and you are working on that, but then someone who is for you on that, but they don’t like what you have done on the side of border control, or more DPS agents or more of the Border Patrol agents.

And then you have another set that wants something for ag workers. And they won’t like something you did in another section. And we found it impossible to come together in a comprehensive way, and it fell apart.

That’s why I think a step-by-step approach is the one that will be more successful, because the more ways that you have to deal with the solitary issue — and, in this case, it’s the most time-sensitive issue because it’s these young people who have American educations, they have graduated from high school, they want to go to college, they want to be a part of our system, they want to be a part of the community. We want them with that education to get there.

But if you start then going beyond that particular area, you get bogged down, and we’re not going to be able to help them.

I think you could then go to the next phase, which would be Border Patrol or border security or work visas in other areas like high-tech.

But I do think a step-by-step approach can be successful, where I don’t think comprehensive is going to be able to be done, especially in this environment, to be honest.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative, you just heard the senator lay out why time is of the essence. Is time also of the essence in a political sense? Do you have to do this in calendar ’13, before the Congress gets caught up in the midterms for 2014?

LUIS GUTIERREZ: Look, tomorrow, the next session, the next month, the next term, those aren’t words. It’s now.

The Latino community spoke clearly and eloquently and forcefully and in a unified fashion across this nation. And I say to my colleagues in the Republican Party it is time that we listen to the electorate. And they spoke very clearly.

Look, a couple of things just very quickly. Every day, we deport 1,000 people. That’s 30,000 a month. Let me just make it clear. Tens of thousands of people are going to be deported this year who have American citizen children. They can’t wait for piecemeal. We have a stem industry that needs workers today.

Think about all this talk about uncertainty and uncertainty and how that has an impact, a negative impact on our economy. Let’s take the uncertainty away from 12 million people and say, get in line, get right with the law, learn English, pay your taxes, and one day you can be an American citizen.

And you know what those 12 million people will do when the uncertainty in their life — they will buy that house, they will buy that car. They will expand the business they’re already in, and they will pay more taxes and be right with the law.

Our nation cannot continue to have millions of people and we don’t know who they are. I want them registered with the country, and I want them fulfilling the responsibility that I and the senator fulfill as citizens of this nation. It is their responsibility, and we should give them that opportunity.

RAY SUAREZ: Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, thanks to you both.

LUIS GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Thank you.