Democrats, GOP still divided on illegal immigration

Parties talk reform, but gap remains on citizenship

  • Moises Morillo (left) and Francisco Dominguez of Baltimore talk about the prospects for new immigration legislation in the next congress
Moises Morillo (left) and Francisco Dominguez of Baltimore… (Lloyd Fox, The Baltimore…)
November 17, 2012|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

The way Francisco Dominguez sees it, a law that would allow him to become a U.S. citizen would benefit everyone.

"It would let more people work, which would generate more opportunity," Dominguez, 45, said in Mexican-accented Spanish as he waited on South Broadway in Fells Point one morning last week in the hope that someone might drive by and offer a construction job for the day. "The government would get more taxes, and we would get more money to maintain our families."

Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins also wants to see changes — of a different kind.

"I haven't heard anybody throw down and say we're going to close the borders," said Jenkins, whose department works closely with federal authorities to identify and detain illegal immigrants suspected in crimes. "Until you do that, how effective will any pathway to citizenship be?

"What I would like to see, first and foremost, is the absolute securing of our border, which can be done — I'm convinced it can be done — if we have the will to do it."

The views of Dominguez and Jenkins illustrate a deep divide on the issue of immigration. But with President Barack Obama winning re-election with the overwhelming support of the Latino community and Republicans trying to determine why they fared so poorly among a bloc they see as a natural constituency, leaders of both parties say they are ready to take up comprehensive immigration reform.

"It's just time to get the job done," House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters after the election, as he urged the president to take the lead on legislation that has long eluded Washington.

Obama expressed confidence last week that the sides could reach an agreement, and Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said he and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had "put together a comprehensive, detailed blueprint" that had "the real potential for bipartisan support."

Gustavo Torres, watching from Maryland, said immigrants are enjoying "a perfect political and historical moment."

The fast-growing Latino community has won Washington's attention by building on its 2008 turnout, giving more than 70 percent of its vote to Obama and helping him to victory in the battleground states of Colorado and Nevada. In Maryland, immigrants are celebrating passage of the Dream Act, which will extend in-state tuition breaks to some undocumented immigrants at public colleges and universities.

Asian-Americans, another fast-growing group interested in immigration reform, also voted overwhelmingly for the president.

Torres, president of the immigrant services group CASA de Maryland and its advocacy arm CASA en Acción, said he is "very optimistic" that the parties will now agree on broader immigration reform.

"Democrats really want it, and Republicans need it," he said. "Republicans understand that every single minute that they are losing the debate they are losing thousands and thousands of Latinos and immigrants."

Still, wide differences remain on border security, on family reunification, on a guest worker program and above all, on what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants — the exact number is unknown — already in the country.

"I think there is general consensus that these individuals should have an opportunity to come out of the shadows," Sen. Ben Cardin said.

The Maryland Democrat was re-elected this month to a second term. Like others in his party, he favors allowing undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship — after they meet certain requirements.

"If they've been law-abiding," Cardin said, "if they're prepared to acknowledge their status, prepared to pay the costs of becoming documented, are prepared to comply with our laws, and if they're prepared to wait at the back of the line, then the reward for that is you get documented, you get protected, you can pay your taxes, you can use our resources."

Rep. Andy Harris opposes that approach. Like others in his party, the Baltimore County Republican is against allowing those who broke the law to enter the United States to become full citizens.

Harris, who will soon be the only Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation, said the GOP is ready to work with Democrats on "a common-sense reform that recognizes we're probably never going to deport 12 million people but, on the other hand, we're not going to grant blanket citizenship to those 12 million people, either."

Harris, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, spoke of the possibility of creating a new category that would grant undocumented foreigners legal permission to remain in the country without making them U.S. citizens.

"I think that we can craft a compromise," he said.

Torres rejected what he called "second-class citizenship" and said his side now holds the upper hand. He said CASA is planning to send tens of thousands of supporters to a rally outside the Capitol.

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