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Congressional lawmakers are back to work after an August recess and they face a growing to-do list. Debate over possible military action in Syria has added yet another complicated and politically charged issue to the agenda, threatening to put once-pressing domestic issues, like immigration reform, on the back burner. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia plays a key role in getting legislative action on efforts like immigration reform to the House floor. He joins Kojo to talk about the House’s strategy for fall.
- Robert Goodlatte Chairman, House Judiciary Committee; Member, U.S. House of Representatives (R-Va.)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the D.C. Health Department considers a 24-hour waiting period for all tattoos and body piercings.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, as Congress gets back to work this week, lawmakers are taking on a legislative agenda that's packed with approaching deadlines and high profile hearings. There is the issue of Syria about which there are new developments.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEven today there's the threat of a government shutdown, new information about NSA data collection programs and the list goes on. It's making some wonder when the House will have time to resume the politically-charged debate over immigration reform which not long ago was Congress's top priority.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia has been involved in immigration reform in the House at every step. He joins me now to talk about the latest news we've been getting about Syria and about where immigration fits in on Congress's long to-do list.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe joins us by phone. Congressman Goodlatte is a congressman. Bob Goodlatte is a congressman representing Virginia's 6th District. He's a Republican. He chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Congressman Goodlatte, thank you for joining us.
CONGRESSMAN ROBERT GOODLATTEKojo, it's good to be with you and your listeners.
NNAMDIGlad to have you aboard. Let's start with the latest news that's occurring because yesterday as President Obama made the case for military action in Syria, Russia proposed that the international community simply secure Syria's chemical weapons rather than carry out a full-on military strike.
NNAMDIEarlier today, the president agreed to discuss Russia's proposal with the U.N. Security Council. What is your thinking about this? Is this an alternative to U.S. military action that you think Congress could, should get behind?
GOODLATTEWell, it's certainly something that we should explore. I share the president's concern about whether Syria is really serious about doing this as long as there's the threat of military action being used. He may back away from it if he perceives that that's not going to happen. But having said that, I and a great many other members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are very concerned about the proposal that is before the president and we have made that skepticism known.
GOODLATTESo I think the president needs to pursue other avenues or different ideas for resolution because the current one that was passed out at the Senate Committee is not something that I could support and I do not think it would pass the House of Representatives.
GOODLATTEI don't know whether it can even pass the Senate. So it's important that we send the right message regarding the use of chemical weapons. It's an abhorrent thing that Syria has done, but it is also very concerning that simply firing cruise missiles into Syria may not accomplish the goals that we have of trying to dissuade Syria and other countries from using chemical weapons in the future.
GOODLATTEAnd so as a result of that, we are waiting to hear what the president has to say tonight and we are looking for better ideas.
NNAMDIAnd whatever the president has to say tonight is likely to affect the timeline that we're looking at for some kind of Congressional action, but I guess you're not now in a position to say what that timeline is likely to be. We just have to...
GOODLATTEYes, I don't know. The Speaker this morning mentioned that it may very well not be this week, but again, at least in the House. Again, it's going to depend upon what the president says and what these discussions with the U.N. Security Council lead to and whether Syria will step up and do the right thing and transfer their chemical weapons to an international body.
NNAMDICongressman Goodlatte, at the beginning of summer, a lot of people expected the House to be pushing through immigration reform by this point. Instead, you and your colleagues now face the task of this Syria issue, then there's next year's federal budget, new information about the NSA and the Farm Bill. Where does all of this now put immigration reform?
GOODLATTEWell, my best estimate is that we will be ready to take up immigration bills very soon. It may be October, but in my opinion, the five bills that have been passed out of -- the four out of the Judiciary Committee which I chair and the one dealing with border security out of the Homeland Security Committee. now those bills are ready to go to the floor of the House. And it's my hope that they will come to the floor of the House as soon as possible, but we certainly do recognize the fact that Syria, the CR and others will take up the limited number of legislative days that are immediately in front of us.
GOODLATTEThat should not deter us from getting to it as soon as possible. And we have members of the House working on other bills related to the children brought here illegally by their parents, related to a legal status for people who are not lawfully here today, a larger group, related to reform of our refugee and asylum programs and related other guest-worker programs in other categories that are not covered by the Agricultural Guest Worker Bill, say construction or seasonal workers and so on.
GOODLATTESo each of these bills are not without controversy, but it is also important that we look at them and figure out the best way to fix what is clearly a broken immigration system today. It's broken in terms of enforcement. It's broken in terms of the lost opportunity to use good legal immigration programs to grow our economy and create jobs for Americans.
GOODLATTEAnd it is broken in the sense that it is not good to have 11 million people in the status that they're in and finding an appropriate legal status for a great many of them also needs to be a priority. But I think most of my constituents and polls seem to suggest that most of the American people also want to have the enforcement done and they want to have it done right and have it work...
NNAMDIWell, Mr. Congressman...
GOODLATTE...and that was a mistake of the 1986 law.
NNAMDIMr. Congressman, you said that each of these bills is not without controversy. The mere fact that there are a number of bills is, in itself, controversial because when the Senate passed an immigration bill with bipartisan support last June, many people believed the House would follow suit. Why did you decide instead to deal with immigration reform piece by piece?
GOODLATTEWell, we have decided to take this step-by-step approach because we think the Senate bill has many, many flaws to it and each of these areas has to be addressed carefully. We've held many, many hearings in the Immigration Subcommittee and in the full Judiciary Committee and we have marked up these bills individually.
GOODLATTEBut the Senate passed a bill that respects an important rule that the House leadership has also said they're going to respect and that is a majority of majority in the Senate voted for the Senate immigration bill, but only a minority of the Republicans in the Senate supported that bill.
GOODLATTESeventy percent voted against it. In the House, with the Republicans in the majority, it is important that we craft legislation that has the support of the majority. That we're elected by the American people and quite frankly, a recent poll by The Washington Post shows that that's what the American people want.
GOODLATTEWhen asked should we take the comprehensive Senate bill or should we do the step-by-step approach the House is doing, by a more than 20-point margin, the American people said, do the step-by-step approach. Get it done right. In 1986, a comprehensive immigration reform bill was passed. It had an easy pathway to citizenship. Nearly three million people were able to take advantage of that.
GOODLATTEThere was promise of new enforcement, new employment, employer sanctions, new enforcement at the border and that has been mostly honored in the breach. So we don’t want to make that same mistake again. We want to make sure that these enforcement mechanisms are put in place before people get a legal status which is what this bill does.
NNAMDIOur guest is Congressman Bob Goodlatte. He's a Republican representing Virginia's 6th District. He chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Let's talk about one of the pieces of those bills, or one of those bills, the Kid's Act, which you're co-developing with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
NNAMDIThe measure is expected to provide undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children with some sort of legal status. How would that work?
GOODLATTEWell, there is a great deal of discussion going on. The bill has not been written as yet. We have not just Leader Cantor involved, but a great many members on the House side involved with their various ideas about how to do it.
GOODLATTEBut basically it would recognize children brought here illegally by their parents who have, in some instances, been brought across the desert through dangerous tunnels, in the backs of tractor trailers where some of them have suffocated to death. They've been raised in the United States, educated here and they're now ready to face the world and they have no documentation.
GOODLATTESo we recognize that that is something that should be a priority in addressing. However, we also want to make sure future parents don't continue to do the same thing of bringing children across the desert and through dangerous tunnels and in this way. So writing this bill in conjunction with making sure that if we are able to give an appropriate legal status to children who have grown up here, we don't get another wave of people coming here and bringing their children with them, is again a part of that discussion.
NNAMDIAnd when you say appropriate legal status, I guess that is one of the sources of controversy because some people believe that an appropriate legal status for kids like that should be citizenship. You seem to be suggesting that a direct path to citizenship might encourage other parents to do the same thing. What would be…
GOODLATTENo, no. I think whatever status we give could encourage that because, again, we don't know what this bill is going to look like at the end of the day. But whether it's a legal status or whether it includes a legal status and then a way to earn citizenship through education, military service or types of employment, whatever the case might be, all of this is being discussed.
GOODLATTEBut whatever it is, we don’t want this to be a continual thing where people in the future say, well, if I bring my children to the United States, they're going to be able to take advantage of this as well because while we are a nation of immigrants -- and there's not a person listening to this radio program who is a United States citizen who can't go back a few generations or several generations and find someone in their family who came to the United States to better their lives for themselves and their children.
GOODLATTEWe're also a nation of laws. And if we do not have a workable immigration system, in terms of enforcement, simply giving the benefits without having in place something to prevent future waves, would simply repeat what happened in 1986.
NNAMDIForgive me for using this expression, Congressman Goodlatte, but you seem to be painting yourself into a corner. If, on the one hand, you feel that there should be some path to some legal status for these young people, but that there is no path to legal status that you can think of that would not encourage future parents to do the same, what you seem to be saying is, we can't do this.
GOODLATTENo, no, no I'm not saying that at all. What I'm saying is there must be enforcement mechanisms in place at the same time so that you're assured that this does not encourage what happened in 1986. And that is the key difference with the Senate bill which gives the legal status first and then says, oh, by the way, we'll also go ahead and have an entry/exit visa system.
GOODLATTEWe'll have an employment verification system. We'll secure the border, but that will all happen after we've already given the legal status to people who are not already here.
NNAMDIOh, okay, I got it.
GOODLATTEAnd that's the bone of contention that we have to work our way through with all of these bills, including with whatever we do for the children who are brought here illegally by their parents.
NNAMDISpeaking of the parents of those children the Kids Act is only concerning itself with undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. under a certain age. Where do the rest of the undocumented immigrant population fit into your plans for immigration reform?
GOODLATTEWell again, we have members on the House side working on that issue. And I think there are a great many Americans who -- including myself, who if they were convinced that we had taken the necessary steps to prevent future illegal immigration, they would be willing to find the appropriate legal status for people who are not lawfully here. Again, there's a difference of opinion on whether they get a legal status and then an opportunity if they qualify for the traditional ways that people have gotten permanent residence and also a citizenship or whether they should get a special pathway like is in the senate bill, is one of the differences that many members on the House side have with the senate bill.
GOODLATTESo for example, you could be given a legal status that would allow you to live here, work here, own your own business here, pay your taxes, travel to and from your home country or anyplace else. And if you then were eligible based upon marriage to a U.S. citizen employer petitioning for a job for which they could not find a U.S. citizen or another relative petitioning for you who is eligible to petition, you could ultimately get a green card.
GOODLATTEBut the senate bill says, notwithstanding the way people have lawfully stood in lines sometimes for many years and have gone through the process legally, people who have entered the country illegally will get something special beyond that. And they'll get a pathway to citizenship regardless of whether they have any of those conditions.
NNAMDIFinal question, Congressman Goodlatte, how important is timing in all of this? After the 2012 elections both Republicans and Democrats made urgent calls for immigration reform, arguably because of the growing Hispanic vote. If immigration reform is pushed until the end of the year or into next year when primaries will begin and some lawmakers may be reluctant to overhaul the immigration system just before facing their constituents, how soon do you think you can get this done and how important is the timing of it?
GOODLATTEWell, one of the problems we've had for many, many years is that instead of being able to address these problems individually as they come up, people have insisted, if you want to pass a bill that deals with one area of immigration reform, you have to pass something that deals with everything. So that's what the senate has attempted to do, but the house has been very reluctant to follow suit when they see complaints about the nature of the senate bill.
GOODLATTESo to me the most important thing is that we work continuously on this, we work diligently to accomplish it, but we also work to get it done right. And there is no specific timetable for that. And I think that good public policy brings about good politics. And that's really what should guide us in writing this legislation.
NNAMDICongressman Goodlatte, thank you so much for joining us.
GOODLATTEThank you, Kojo. It's great to be with you.
NNAMDIBob Goodlatte is a Republican Congressman representing Virginia's Sixth District. He chairs the House Judiciary Committee. We're going to be taking a short break. When we come back, you might want to join in on this conversation. The D.C. Health Department considers a 24-hour waiting period for all tattoos and body piercings. What do you think, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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