KNAU and Arizona News
5:20 am
Mon December 10, 2012

AZ Delegation May Be Key to Immigration Debate in Congress

This year's election changed the debate on immigration reform in Washington, but big hurdles remain to reaching a grand compromise.

A few years ago Arizona's Republican senators looked to be key to getting an immigration overhaul through Congress.

The effort was derailed and then leaders of both parties shelved the topic.

Republicans have been quiet about immigration for the past two years.

But the issue has gained a new sense of urgency after this year's returns showed Latinos voted in droves for Democrats. 

“We have to get this ball rolling," says Senator John Kyl. "We have to have a discussion that is sensible – that is calm.” 

With his retirement not official until January, Kyl unveiled a GOP proposal to allow children of undocumented workers to a get on a path to permanent residency.

But his plan stops short of offering citizenship.

Cynical critics say that’s because G-O-P leaders don’t want to give the Democratic Party millions of new members.

Arizona Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva says he's glad Kyl and others are offering proposals.

But he says unless Republicans broaden their scope they’re going to continue angering Hispanic voters.

“So the wool is not going to get pulled over the Latino voters," Grijalva warned. "If it is an honest gesture with content and with an effort toward compromise. I think the Republican Party, their efforts would be respected. But if this continues – as Kyl’s bill and others – to just try to buy time and not deal with the reality, the drubbing they took is just going to be historic as time goes on.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus laid down a nine point proposal on immigration reform.

It includes establishing an employee verification system, a commitment to securing the borders and a path to citizenship.

Grijalva says any new law must create a path to citizenship for people now here illegally. 

“We’re not going to create a second class citizenship or a marginalized group of workers in this country," Grijalva said. "That is just un-American. Against all the values. That is one of the lines.”

Arizona's new senator may be able to help bridge the divide in January.

Republican Senator-elect Jeff Flake says the nation must address the issue of the twelve million undocumented workers estimated to be in the U-S. 

“They’re not going to self deport and we’re not going to deport them,” he predicted.

Flake says he supports something like the STRIVE Act.

It sets up hurdles in front of citizenship, including a hefty fine on undocumented workers.

It requires English and civic knowledge, and a six year waiting period before someone can apply.

He says that may be able to placate critics in both parties.

“If you look at that there was a path to citizenship but it was an arduous one, that didn’t allow people to jump in line ahead of those who were going through the process," Flake said. "But it did allow for a path.”

Flake supported a recent House proposal to expand the number of visas doled out to highly skilled workers.

But he says if lawmakers are going to seriously address the immigration system they need to craft a broad proposal.

“Then it’s comprehensive reform, including a guest worker plan, a mechanism to deal with those who are here illegally,  employer enforcement – the whole shebang," he added.

After Arizona’s high profile fight with the federal government over immigration enforcement, many of the state’s Republicans disagree with Flake.

To Congressman Trent Franks securing the U-S/Mexican border remains his number one priority.

“In a post 9-1-1 world our border security is tantamount to national security,” Franks said.

Incoming Arizona freshmen Democrat Kyrsten Sinema agrees the federal government can always improve border security.

But she says without a guest worker program, immigrants will continue crossing the border.

“In order to achieve true security we have to address both the physical elements of border security as well as more legal forms of reform,” Sinema said.

Republicans are changing their tune on immigration, but the two parties remain far apart.

The Arizona delegation maintains some of the most conservative and liberal views in Congress on immigration.

That means the delegation will be one of the most vocal in the nation if party leaders try to tackle the issue next year.