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Immigration Ghosts Haunt the Hispanic Caucus

March 20, 1994|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is the author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam)

SANGER, CALIF. — The Congressional Hispanic Caucus must wish that the immigration issue would just go away. But in the spirit of the more outspoken Congressional Black Caucus, the 18- member caucus professes a dedication to "voicing and advancing, through the legislation process, issues affecting Hispanics in the United States"--and immigration is the most controversial issue on the list.

With the 103rd Congress considering an onslaught of new immigration bills, including a proposal by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) targeting the children of illegal immigrants in public schools, the misty-eyed imagery of the Statue of Liberty is wearing thin. Ironically, nowhere is this more true than in the nation's Latino population.

Pollsters invariably find Latinos more eager than the rest of the population to control the nation's borders. Last year's National Latino Political Survey revealed that 66% of Cuban-Americans, 75% of Mexican-Americans and 79% of Puerto Ricans believed there was too much immigration into the United States.

That constitutes a silent majority: Latinos for Immigration Reform.

Meanwhile in Washington, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, while trying to weather the anti-immigrant storm and remain loyal to its constituency's immigrant roots, stumbles along, far behind the expressed wishes of that same constituency. Once they arrive in the portals of power, even the brightest political stars cannot make peace with yesterday. The ghosts of Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants who, generations ago, crossed the Rio Grande in search of something better roam the porcelain halls of Congress whispering into the ears of caucus members. " No nos olviden . . . " Do not forget us. Something better yes, but better for our whole family.

So as caucus members sit in committee with colleagues who want to beef up the border patrol or deploy the National Guard or charge an admission fee to America, the ghost of immigrants past sits next to them--whispering: "If you do not speak for us, who will?" They hold their breath and give the ghost their vote. Still, back at the office, there is new polling data and angry phone calls from constituents complaining that Los Angeles is becoming Tijuana.

Where, finally, is the Hispanic Caucus on the rock-and-hard-place issue of immigration? Mostly in hiding. On the caucus agenda for this Congress, immigration is buried at No. 7. When the subject is mentioned, it is only with regard to monitoring enforcement of immigration laws to ensure that Latinos are not discriminated against. Nothing about deporting illegal immigrants from U.S. jails. Nothing about securing or revoking the citizenship birthright to the children of illegal immigrants. Nothing about safeguarding or eliminating education, health and welfare benefits for illegal immigrants. Nothing.

Not only is the Hispanic Caucus not out in front of the curve on the immigration issue, it is completely off the chart. For example, despite a consensus among Latinos that those who employ undocumented workers should be punished, the caucus has consistently opposed employer sanctions. It was in the mid-'80s, during the debate on the Simpson-Mazzoli bill and before the adoption of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, that caucus members raised their concern that such sanctions might lead to employers discriminating against Latinos. Despite such objections, the sanctions were approved, a setback never forgotten or forgiven.

For almost 10 years, the sanctions snub has been stuck in the caucus' craw. Last session, a distinguished caucus member introduced legislation to repeal employer sanctions under the pretense that they have not been successful in curbing excessive immigration. It went nowhere.

A few months ago, it was rumored that Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), the caucus president, was preparing to reintroduce similar legislation despite overwhelming public sentiment that employer sanctions should actually be strengthened, not repealed. Anticipating a political storm that would make the Alamo look like a spring picnic, Serrano thought twice. And so, after all the rhetoric, the only caucus offering this year is something called H.R. 1292, which amends IRCA to increase penalties for employer discrimination. Of course.

Luckily, the Hispanic Caucus has one last hope to catch up to its constituency and salvage some integrity in the immigration debate. It comes to them not from the Spanish-speaking ghosts of the past but from an English-speaking leader for the future. At the beginning of this session, freshman Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), addressed the immigration issue in a way that is not merely reactive. By seeking and winning membership on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on International Law, Refugees and Immigration, Becerra has become the point person on the immigration issue for the entire caucus.

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