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Border Democrats See Window Closing on Immigration Reform

Congressional border Democrats still seeking progress on immigration reform said on Monday that time is slipping away and the issue could be on hold until next year or beyond.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville

Congressional border Democrats still seeking a deal on immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship conceded on Monday that time is slipping away and the issue could be on hold until next year — or beyond.

Lawmakers began the year thinking they had a legitimate shot at revamping the system’s immigration system for the first time since 1986.

However, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said various budget issues are going to take precious weeks, and that issues like the conflict in Syria have already eaten up remaining time. The House calendar indicates Congress will meet for less than nine full weeks before the end of the year.

“We’re going back and addressing the government shut down and the debt ceiling,” he said after an ad hoc meeting of the Congressional Border Caucus. “The more things like that we have to deal with makes it less likely we’ll get to address immigration reform.”

Vela joined U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso; U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.; and Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, for a series of meetings on immigration reform.

Republican leaders in the U.S. House have said they do not intend to bring up a bill the Senate passed in June because they oppose, among other things, its provision for a 13-year path to citizenship.

But Vela and O’Rourke indicated they will not give ground on that.

“Non-citizenship is a non-starter for many of us; we don’t want to create an underclass within communities like El Paso that don’t have access to the same level of participation, civil or otherwise, that the rest of us take for granted,” O'Rourke said.

Elections will certainly come in to play sooner than later, he added.

“If we’re not able to put something together within the next three to five months, the primary season starts in Texas,” he said. “It breaks down and gets complicated very quickly.”

Vela raised eyebrows when he resigned in July from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus because of his belief that the group supported a controversial border surge amendment to the Senate’s immigration bill. That Corker-Hoeven amendment calls for installation of 700 miles of fencing on the Southwest border and an additional 20,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents before the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country can obtain permanent residency status and eventual citizenship. 

Vela told immigrants at a subsequent rally at the University of Texas at El Paso that he believes a bill should include a six-year path to citizenship that is not tied to border security.

He did, however, express support for a measure by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, that sets out another criteria for measuring security. McCaul said earlier this year that the bill could be a good starting point for the House.

The bill, H.R. 1417, sets a 90 percent apprehension-rate goal at the border and requires the Department of Homeland Security to create metrics that would measure progress. It would also increase the amount of technology used at the country’s southern border with Mexico.

Vela said he supported that measure because it is more fluid and he believes McCaul is willing to have a dialogue.

“It doesn’t set forth a black-and-white process; it is empowering the secretary of Homeland Security to set up a system,” he said. “And I don’t think [McCaul] agrees with spending $46 million on fencing and doubling the size of Border Patrol agents.”

During the stop at UTEP, Garcia said it is an injustice that O’Rourke isn’t allowed membership in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus because he is Anglo.

“We do not understand it. We do not want him to be excluded,” he said, announcing his group would launch a petition urging the CHC to admit O’Rourke. The congressman’s district is more than 80 percent Hispanic, but caucus bylaws say a member must be Hispanic.

O’Rourke said he has tremendous respect for the group and praised its efforts on immigration reform.

“That respect needs to extend to their rules and their bylaws, which currently do not permit me to seek membership,” he said. “Would I like to be a member? Definitely. I hope that ultimately that caucus can look past my ethnicity and see the people I represent and the fact that they should have a voice in those meetings.”

Vela said he might seek to rejoin if the caucus proved it wouldn’t support the border surge in the future.

“It was my gut feeling, correct or incorrect, that the House Democratic leadership … was trying to get the Hispanic caucus to file the Senate bill,” he said. “I felt like I had to speak out and make sure they wouldn’t go do that.”

Until then, he said, he’ll stump for O’Rourke.

“I joke around with Beto and say the real reason I resigned is that they wouldn’t let him in,” he said. “I think probably every member of the Hispanic caucus wants him to be a part of it.”

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