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Rep. José Serrano: Critical Latino Vote Has Changed the Equation in Washington’s Immigration Debate

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Tens of thousands of immigrants took to the streets Wednesday to join in May Day marches and call on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. People held massive demonstrations from Los Angeles to Alabama, to Chicago, to here in New York City. The rallies come as the immigration reform bill proposed by the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of 8” now makes its way through the House. A working group there has proposed a plan that includes a requirement for immigrants to appear in federal court and plead guilty to breaking U.S. immigration law before they can begin their application for citizenship — a process expected to take at least a decade. For his part, President Obama is testing whether he can take a more public role in the immigration reform debate, an issue that will factor into his trip this week to Mexico and Costa Rica. We’re joined by Democratic Rep. José Serrano of New York.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tens of thousands of immigrants took to the streets Wednesday to join in May Day marches and call on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. People held demonstrations from Los Angeles to Alabama, to Chicago, to here in New York City. This is Edison Severino with the Laborers International Union Local 78, the largest asbestos, lead and hazardous waste workers’ local in the country.

EDISON SEVERINO: The war on workers started many years ago, but the war on immigrants is something that’s been there, too. The war on immigrants today, we see how the hatred—the hatred and ugly right is pushing back to try to prevent millions of people for achieving their dreams in this country. This is a country of immigrants. The immigrant story is an American story, and the American story is indeed also an immigrant story, brothers and sisters. If you ate at a restaurant today, that food was cooked by the hands of an immigrant. Your child was cared by immigrant hands. Your elderly were cared by immigrant workers. Your teachers, your kids, your sons and daughters, are being looked after by immigrant workers. And today it’s simply shameful to say that immigrants don’t have the right to full citizenship in this country. We want an immigration reform now. We want an immigration reform today. We want to say no to criminalization of immigrants. And we want to make sure that the American dream is there for all of us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The immigration reform bill proposed last month by the bipartisan Gang of Eight in the Senate is now making its way through that chamber. A working group there has proposed a plan that includes a requirement for immigrants to appear in federal court and plead guilty to breaking U.S. immigration law before they can begin their application for citizenship—a process expected to take at least a decade.

This comes as President Obama is testing whether he can take a more public role in the immigration reform debate. The issue will be part of the focus of his trip this week to Mexico and Costa Rica. The president described his position on the bill Tuesday during a White House news conference.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Is it making the borders safer? It is dealing with employers and how they work with—with the governments to make sure that people are not being taken advantage of or taking advantage of the system? Are we improving our legal immigration system? And are we creating a pathway for citizenship for the 11 million or so who are undocumented in this country? And if they meet those criteria, but they’re slightly different than the Senate bill, then I think that we should be able to come up with an appropriate compromise. If it doesn’t meet those criteria, then I will not—I will not support such a bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on Tuesday, one of the Senate’s Gang of Eight, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, said some members of the Republican House still hope to derail the immigration reform bill.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: The bill that’s in place right now probably can’t pass the House—it will have to be adjusted—because people are very suspicious about the willingness of the government to enforce the laws now and in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re joined right now by one of the leading voices on immigration reform, New York Congressmember José Serrano, Democrat here in New York in the Bronx. What is happening in the House and the Senate? What do you say about what Marco Rubio said?

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Well, the first thing we need to understand—and thank you for this segment, but the first thing we need to understand is that voting counts. If 71 percent of Latinos had not voted for President Obama, Democrats—and they’re going to hate that I have to say this—Democrats would not be very nervous about keeping that vote, and Republicans would not be very excited about getting some of that vote. They can’t survive as a party. So all of a sudden everybody has evolved on the issue of immigration.

Something is going to happen. The question is how and how quickly, because some people are trying to derail it or simply come up with issues that don’t play into it. For instance, the negotiations go like this: Republicans want border security, meaning no more of this issue in the future, and then they want certain things that we don’t want; then Democrats want to make sure that people have a pathway to citizenship. I’m even hearing some of my Republican colleagues say, “We’ll legalize. We’ll make everybody come out of the shadows. We’ll allow you to travel out of the country and back and work and pay taxes. But you can’t become a citizen at the end of the day.”

So, it’s going to run into a serious situation in the House, because unlike the Senate, the House Republicans are not controlled by the Republicans you and I know. They’re controlled by the tea party, and the tea party doesn’t think we should be doing anything on immigration. So the next couple of months are going to be crucial, because if we get into next year, then we have a problem. Next year is an election year for members of Congress, and they don’t live in districts like mine where not only do I want to, but I’m expected to do something about immigration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, what about in the House, where you are? I talked with Luis Gutiérrez a couple of weeks ago, and he was hopeful that they could get a similar or that they already have a similar Gang of Eight-type group in the House—

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Right, right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that is trying to work out a compromise. But, as you say, a lot of the Republicans in the House don’t necessarily follow their leadership.

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: No, exactly. It’s become a situation where—a comment from a liberal Democrat is: “I wish the older Republicans or the old Republicans were in control of the House,” because those guys, you could talk to; these guys, you can’t. It’s a whole different world.

But we are hopeful. The question is: Will it be a bill that in fact does what it needs to do? We understand that you have to pay a fine. You understand that we want people to speak some English, that you want to pay back taxes. We understand all of that. But the idea is to make it easier for you to stay in this country and not to start deporting people again.

Lastly, a new wrinkle has come up this week, which is an interesting one and one that I care about, and that is some Republicans saying, “Hell no, the issue of gays will not be included. People will not be able to ask for their partner from another country to join them here.” Well, that’s unacceptable to us, because you can’t single out a group for inequality. You have to make it fair for everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said last month on CNN that the immigration reform bill would make it easier to catch those who have dangerous intentions, from the attacks of September 11th to the more recent bombing of the Boston Marathon.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: In terms of immigration, I think now is the time to bring all the 11 million out of the shadows and find out who they are. Most of them are here to work, but we may find some terrorists in our midst who have been hiding in the shadows. When it comes to the entry-exit visa system, the 19 hijackers were all students who overstayed their visas, and the system didn’t capture that. We’re going to fix that. In our bill, when you come into the country, it goes into the system, and when your time to leave the country expires and you haven’t left, law enforcement is notified. So we’re addressing a broken immigration system. What happened in Boston, an international terrorism, I think, should urge us to act quicker, not slower, when it comes to getting the 11 million identified.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Your response, Congressman Serrano?

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Well, we have to be careful with that kind of a comment, because, yes, there is a need to identify the 11 million people, but we need to identify them, for their sake, so they can be living in an open society, so they can travel back to their country, and for our sake, so that they can pay taxes and be part of the economy and educate their children. It’s a win-win for both sides. But if we’re not willing to be saying that somebody who committed an infraction when they were 17 years old, and did, you know, three months in jail, now has to be looked at as a possible terrorist, that’s where it gets dangerous. So we have to be careful. There are other ways to deal with the terrorism issue. It doesn’t have to be dealt through the 11 million people who are here to work and to have a new life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Congressman Serrano, I’d like to ask you about another topic: Venezuela. You have been outspoken in the past in terms of your support for some of the work of the Venezuelan government, and Hugo Chávez provided low-cost oil to the South Bronx for many years. Your reaction to the recent elections in Venezuela and to the U.S. government’s reaction to the results so far, in terms of the declaration that Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s chosen successor, had won by a small margin?

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Well, you know, I’m always troubled by the fact that our country just does not—we contradict ourselves. We tell people to have elections, and then when we don’t like the winner of the election, we oppose the election and the election results. The Venezuelan people are smart enough and prepared enough to deal with the issue of whether the election was fair or not. Let them deal with that. We should not be making statements in the White House saying the election—there has to be a recount. I mean, Venezuela didn’t ask for a recount in Florida when Bush and Gore were going at it. And we know what happened there. So I’m always one for letting people work things out.

But it’s related to immigration, too. I have a theory, which is, if you don’t want people coming to this country—and I don’t have a problem with that—don’t advertise. So you tell them how bad their countries are, how bad their elections are, and then, if something breaks, where do you think they’re going to come? They’re going to come here. And then you wonder why are they here. Well, stop meddling. You know, stop advertising that you’re going to meddle in their affairs. They had an election. Let them work it out. We didn’t recognize the other six, seven, eight, nine elections that Hugo Chávez had that he won and the world accepted. Now we don’t accept this one. I don’t think we’re happy until the candidate we want to win wins the election.

AMY GOODMAN: So will you continue to get oil from Venezuela, just like your former congressmember—your colleague, Congressmember Joe Kennedy in Massachusetts, has made use of this oil to help poor people there?

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: What happened was that we invited Hugo Chávez to the Bronx, and he spoke to a lot of folks. And he was talking to them about it, and he said, “Look, I have something I can offer you. I’m not the wealthiest country in the world, but I have home-heating oil that we don’t use in Venezuela. We’ll sell it to you at cost,” with the understanding, very interesting, when we signed the documents, that any money saved by, say, the XYZ Housing Corporation from last year’s heating bill had to be used, those savings, to reinvest in, you know, boiler repairs, rent reductions. There were a couple of years there where folks in my district were getting like $25, $30, $70 rent reduction during the winter months based on this. Now, the government was upset—our government—because we were getting foreign aid from another country. We’re used to sending foreign aid. So I’m hoping that the Maduro government, or the Capriles government—I don’t care which government it is—continues to do this.

And I want to be clear about that: I’m not for what the result should be; I’m just for letting the people in Venezuela decide who their leader is.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember José Serrano, we want to thank you very much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember from New York, from the Bronx.

And that does it for today’s show. In fact, Juan, you’re going to be at a screening of Harvest of Empire, the film based on your book, on May 10th, right?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On May 10th in Philadelphia, and the film will be in Houston Friday night.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday night, May 3rd.

REP. JOSÉ SERRANO: Great film.

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As Obama Touts Pathway to Citizenship, Record Deportations Leave Undocumented Immigrants in Fear

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