Last week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee started the markup of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced by eight U.S. senators, including Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake. Among the bill's provisions: Legal status for many of those who have entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas, with a lengthy path to citizenship to qualified individuals; a new guest-worker program; and increased border security, including more fencing, manpower and technology to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border. Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona says the bill "is a compromise and it's not perfection. As I tell people: I have some bitter things to swallow in there." Here's a lightly edited Q&A with Grijalva.
What do you think of the Gang of Eight's comprehensive immigration reform package?
Given that it was a compromise, there are some good things there. The DREAM Act stuff is good because there's a two-year waiting period for the students and young people who will qualify under that. That will be a significant number. There's an expedited process for their green cards and the path to citizenship starts five years after you get a green card under the law as it now stands, and that's not supposed to change at all. I think the deal that was struck on the farmworker/guest worker thing was good, on the number of visas and the fact that it includes portability. That means people can move from job to job and not just be stuck with one employer. And the fact that it includes a path to citizenship is an important part of the Senate bill.
What would you view as problems in the bill?
I think that cutting out the visa issues in terms of diversity visas, which primarily affects the Caribbean and Africa, is a point of contention with me and many in my caucus, especially the Black Caucus. The issue of eliminating the ability of siblings to sponsor someone is a serious problem. Leaving out LGBT, I think, is a huge mistake. Senators are indicating that that is an item they're going to push to get back in. If you're going to start to reform the immigration law and you have a discrimination based on (sexual) orientation, I think you're already starting with a problem. That's a huge point of contention with me and many other people.
What do you think of the additional border-enforcement provisions?
My understanding is that a lot of that is concentrated on the Arizona-Mexico border. You have $18 billion you're already spending on enforcement on the southern border. A big chunk of it is the Tucson Sector. You layer $5.7 billion on top of that and potentially another billion dollars on top of that—the only semi-silver lining I see is that the Department of Homeland Security gets to design the plan. There are a couple of issues there: A due process issue, in terms of where do grievances go, where do complaints go, how are they being handled, what is the independent body who is doing it? I think that has to be part of it.
Homeland Security/Border Patrol is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country. After 9/11, it was put together rapidly as a response, and I think that there's a maturation period that it hasn't gone through. That's uniform training in use of force, additional training in terms of working with the populations that you (are assigned to). How do average folks, whether they are immigrant or citizens, deal with the system in which everything is national security and yet there are instances of abuse and use of force and investigations go on forever with no real end result. Look at the case in Nogales where the young man was shot on the other side and we're still waiting for the FBI to come through with what their findings are at this point.
Do you have environmental concerns with the bill?
I think one of the areas where change is needed is with the waiver of environmental law on public lands and lands in general along the U.S.-Mexico border. And the idea of building the wall, which is impossible. Where it's not completed, it's because the terrain is impossible. Where it's not completed, it's because it would destroy habitat. It affects water flow. What are you going to do, wall part of the San Pedro River? It's more political symbolism than it is deterrent.
I recently heard a rancher in Cochise County say he doesn't need a wall on his property but he'd like to have more Border Patrol agents on horseback.
I think we need a re-examining of the mission. Many people have said they'd like the Border Patrol to be closer to the border. I agree with that argument.
And especially when people come forward and declare themselves and employer verification goes into effect. At that point, a lot of the internal policing that ICE does will become secondary, because no one will be allowed to get a job unless you have documentation to work. At the same time, we're ignoring the real need for more customs agents—the people who man our ports of entry and the upgrades that are needed there. There has to be an upgrade, both for security purposes and the movement of goods. Trade is essential to Arizona and to every border community up and down the southern border.
So you have to balance the good and the bad in the bill?
Everybody knows this bill is a compromise. If I wrote it, it would be different. If somebody else wrote it, it would be different. I tell my friends who are unhappy with the enforcement or unhappy with the length of time people have to wait—10 or 13 years—that the alternative, quite frankly, is that we make no movement on this issue. And the Senate, like it or not, is the template, because what comes out of the House is going to be horrendous. It's more a punishment agenda in there than trying to reform the law.
At this point, I'd prefer that the House did nothing, and the template that comes over is the Senate template, and that (House Speaker John) Boehner has the political courage to give us an up-or-down vote. There's a tightrope and thin ice for everybody to walk on this thing. It's a compromise and it's not perfection. As I tell people: I have some bitter things to swallow in there. But I've had sessions with folks who will be affected by this bill, from DREAM kids to working guys and moms. And I say, "It's a long path, maybe 13 years. And then you still have to wait five years to get your citizenship. So it's 18 years." And they say: "Well, I've been here 11 years, living with this anxiety and fear. Fifteen years, 10 years, it doesn't matter to me, as long as I am legally protected and I have a chance to work and I can be with my family." That's a huge motivation. And sometimes, politically, we can speak to the issues, but there's a significant constituency that's going to be affected by this issue that we need to hear as well. It's going to be tough for all of us, but this is one of those greater-good kind of votes.