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At Civil Rights Summit, Castro, Barbour Call for Immigration Reform

At the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Democratic San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, both expressed optimism that Congress could pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.

Mayor Julian Castro and former Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour, speak to media during the Civil Rights Summit on April 8th, 2014

Democratic San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, both expressed optimism on Tuesday that Congress could pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.

Speaking at the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Barbour said such reform is in the country's best interest, and told reporters it was too early to count the federal legislation out. "It’s not dead," he said. "Work is being done on this. I can’t look you in the eye and say I know it’s going to succeed, but there is clearly a path to success."

And Castro said getting reforms passed successfully may be a matter of timing. Once the Republican primaries are over, he told reporters, "that may make it easier."

Tuesday marked the first day of a summit at the LBJ Presidential Library celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The summit will feature a number of speakers, including all the living U.S. presidents except for George H. W. Bush.

On an afternoon panel focusing on immigration policy and in a press conference that followed, Castro and Barbour discussed the reasons they support immigration reform and the political obstacles to its passage, some of which are as seemingly basic as defining the terms of the debate.

"When people say 'border security,' rarely is that ever defined," Castro said, adding that the term was often used "politically in a way that ends the discussion."

The San Antonio mayor said he could tell when opponents were serious about the issue when, rather than focusing solely on the border, they discussed the millions of individuals who had entered the country legally and overstayed their visas.

Barbour said that was included in his discussion of border security. But he said it was also important to provide the American people with a secure border. He said Americans want to be assured that immigration reform will have an economic benefit, and added, "Americans don’t want people to be rewarded for breaking the law."

But Barbour indicated that he believed immigration reform could be done in an "appropriate" way that satisfied those desires. He also agreed with Castro that a secure border can't be simply defined by no illegal immigration, though he said the public wants to see the government "set a standard and meet it."

"It does make sense to set a marker for progress and hold people accountable for progress," Castro said. 

Barbour acknowledged that Republicans would likely receive much of the blame if the bill does not pass. "What the Republicans need to do is not worry about the politics," he said. "They need to do what’s good policy for the country."

Tensions on the panel only spiked at one point, when a protester began shouting from the audience and asking why the panelists were not addressing the high rate of deportations under President Obama's administration.

The heckler identified herself as a "DREAMer," an individual who would benefit from the federal DREAM Act. That act would create a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country before age 16, have lived here at least five years, have graduated high school or earned a GED, or have been accepted to a college or university.

Afterward, Castro said that the outburst was understandable. "Political activism is political activism," he said. "There’s no question that there’s been a frustration among many DREAMers."

The San Antonio mayor was not the only Texas official on hand at Tuesday's summit. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, also spoke to reporters, saying that in the next legislative session, he hoped to see increased funding for public education, which he characterized as a contemporary civil rights issue.

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