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Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee: Immigration is the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

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On Capitol Hill, heated debate continues over immigration reform. We speak with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D–TX) who has submitted an immigration bill in Congress that would allow for legal permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for the past five years, would double the cap for family visas and would increase the number of work visas. [includes rush transcript]

On Capitol Hill, heated debate is continuing over a bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that would allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country a chance to work here legally and eventually become U.S. citizens–a process that would take 11 years and include paying fines and back taxes.

But support for the legislation in the Senate is uncertain and there is already talk of a possible filibuster by Republican senators opposed to what they call amnesty for illegal immigrants.

On Monday night, a group of Republican senators reached for a compromise that they hoped would bolster votes for the bill. The talks were led by Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida. Under the compromise proposal, undocumented workers who could produce pay stubs, billing records or other proof showing they have lived and worked in the United States for five years would qualify for a work visa and an opportunity to apply for citizenship. They could stay in the country as they apply for a green card. Those not meeting the requirements would have to return to their native countries.

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter said after leaving the meeting “People who have roots who ought to be treated differently.”

Any bill that passes the Senate would have to reconciled with a House bill passed last year that has been described as the most repressive immigration bill in 70 years. HR 4437 would, among other things, turn every undocumented immigrant into a felon and make it a crime to offer help to undocumented immigrants. The bill sparked widespread demonstrations and student walkouts of historic proportions across the country.

For more on immigration reform we are joined by Democratic Congressmember Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. She has called the immigration issue the civil rights issue of our time. She joins us from a studio in Houston.

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D–TX), she has submitted an immigration bill in Congress that would allow for legal permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for the past five years, would double the cap for family visas and would increase the number of work visas. Her bill has been stalled in the Immigration Subcommittee since mid-2005.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Jackson Lee, you’ve submitted an immigration bill to Congress that would allow for legal permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States, for how long?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: If they’ve been living consistently in the United States between five and six years.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about — just give us the layout of your bill and where it stands now.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: To give you some framework, I want to at least mention the tone of the debate that is occurring now in the United States Senate and what occurred in the House. The great disappointment of this issue is that the members of Congress who were so opposed, outrageously opposed to any fair consideration of documentation of the undocumented individuals in this country really sort of debated this as if they had no sense of humanity, no sense of family and no sense of what this country was built on. And that is, of course, immigrants coming from all over the world during periods of our history and making this country great. In fact, many of us know that African Americans came to this country not as documented citizens and did not obtain citizenship until very, very late, so I’m disappointed at the level of debate.

My bill attempted to craft this as a civil rights issue, and that is, to give a sense of fairness to individuals who had been in this country and had worked and paid taxes and wanted to come from under the shadows. And it provided the earned access to legalization with English conversance, the idea of working, investment in the community, family and community service and no felon record. We also provided for family unification. We provided for the DREAM Act, so the children could go to school. We eliminated or provided penalties for the utilization of fraudulent documents, for the abuse of women, for the abuse of workplace, which would take advantage of those who are undocumented. We insisted that employees provided a safe workplace and a workplace with dignity and equal rights . We also provided for the anti-smuggling provisions, that would stop the coyotes from bringing individuals across the border and causing danger to their lives.

We looked at this in a holistic viewpoint that, in fact, if you identify the undocumented individuals, they become investors in this society. They become part of the economic engine. They invest their dollars in banks. They don’t send most of their money back overseas. They’re allowed to have bank accounts in our country, which is a part of an economic engine.

The disappointment in this debate that is now being politicized in the Senate is that we’re being overtaken by minority voices within the Republican Party, because if you explain to the American people, one, I’m prepared to protect your jobs — and by the way, I have a provision in my bill that takes the fees that immigrants would pay to become documented and utilize them for job creation amongst American workers and protection of American workers and job training. I try to bring two district groups together in the legislation that I’ve offered, Save America Comprehensive Immigration bill, which has the support of many members of Congress. The disappointment was that in the debate, we didn’t allow all members’ bills to be fully debated. The McCain-Kennedy bill on the House side, which was a Kolbe-Gutierrez bill, my bill and a number of others never had an opportunity either to be debated and/or to be voted on, because of the singular, unilateral, exclusive approach that the Republicans took and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee took. None of us were allowed to submit our legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, Congressmember Jackson Lee, we were speaking with Professor Ron Walters, who is raising the issue of the concerns of African Americans that immigrants take jobs in this country. Your response?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: You’re absolutely right. Professor Walters is absolutely right. This is what is permeating throughout the nation. And that’s why I’ve said that we have operated in this debate with the wrong facts, with the idea of creating divisiveness, rather than finding a common ground that would educate Americans, no matter whether they’re African Americans or whether they are white Americans or Asian Americans or others. Let me share with you what I think is really the framework of difficulty in the African American community. With our communities having the highest unemployment rate, with administrations or the administration and this congress being very unconcerned about the plight of African American males, the plight of poor quality schools, yes, I can sympathize and empathize with the African American community about what they perceive to be a population group that takes jobs.

But frankly, that is not the case. If you look at the large percentage of the undocumented who are working here, unfortunately, they are working in jobs that possibly are available to African Americans, and they have chosen not to take, or as the normal progression of immigration occurs, each group comes in and the group preceding them moves up. The heavy hand of discrimination in this nation has kept many in the African American community from achieving their dreams, from gaining jobs and gaining education opportunities. And, of course, we’ve not responded to it. It appears then that any group that is working may be taking their job. But what we need to do to address this question is invest in job training, invest in the protection of American jobs, stop the outsourcing that is impacting Americans of all races, and begin to look at the 11 million undocumented as an economic engine that would churn the economy, helping to create more jobs. I am sympathetic. And I think that’s an important response.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have the support of the Congressional Black Caucus on your bill?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: I think we have the support of many members of the United States Congress, which include members of the Democratic Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and, yes, the Black Caucus and the Asian Pacific Congress. We have received support from across the Congress. And it would have been — the House, that is, would have been an appropriate part of the debate, if we had been allowed to have that debate, including the House version of the McCain-Kennedy bill, which was not allowed on the floor. Neither was mine, was not allowed on the floor.

I hope to participate as a member of the conference committee, which is a place where maybe reasoned minds can generate a debate. Unfortunately, I don’t know if that will be the case, inasmuch as I understand the chairman of that conference may be the author of the House bill. I hope that we will have a conference that will be open, that will be inclusive and will allow us to produce a product that is, if you will, deserving of the reputation that America has of respecting the rights of all human beings.

And might I just say this? I talked to a young Hispanic male yesterday in a high school. It was one of the most emotionally charged meetings or conversations with a youngster, a person under the age of 18. We had just had a whole class talking about this question, because, as you would know, many high school students around the country have been walking out. And they’re still doing so. We’ve been going to high schools to discuss this. He asked the question: Does America want him any more? Is he wanted? He felt so hurt and so disenfranchised. And he was not documented. But he wanted to join the United States military. And he had always wanted to do it. It was his dream, along with a number of his classmates. But he asked me the question, and it was so difficult to answer. Am I wanted? What is this debate about making me a felon? And I think America can do better, and I think we need to have a better debate and a better response to individuals who simply come here for an economic opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: You have called this the civil rights issue of our time.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: I believe it is. And that’s one of the reasons why I truly believe that there is an opportunity for the African American community to be great leaders in this movement. We understand discrimination. We understand isolation and separation. We also understand striving and fighting for just a chance, an economic chance or a chance of dignity. I believe this is a great opportunity for the civil rights organizations of both communities, Hispanics and African Americans, Muslims and others, who have been discriminated against, to come together. That is why the NAACP and LULAC have worked together and are struggling to understand this issue of immigration, because if you have a large body of individuals who you isolate and discriminate against, what is the question? It is civil rights. Many people believe these are illegal persons, they have broken the law and this word of amnesty has become an ugly word. I don’t even call it amnesty. I call it the right to earn the access to legalization. I call it the right to earn dignity. And I believe it is a civil rights question.

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