Wyoming’s Congressional delegation shows interest in immigration debate

Dec 14, 2012

With the federal election concluded, many members of Congress are back to disagreeing over the issue of immigration reform.  Wyoming's delegation has an interest in the debate.  Matt Laslo has more from Washington...

LASLO: Wyoming's immigration issues are different than those faced in other parts of the country. Seasonal workers are needed to help staff up the tourism industry, but Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis points out a less well known reason the state needs migrant workers. 

LUMMIS: Wyoming has a very strong sheep industry. Sheep herders from some South American countries and from Mongolia are the very best sheep herders in the world.

LASLO: Without a robust guest worker program many of those sheep herders find it hard getting into Wyoming legally. Lummis says it’s time for Congress to tackle immigration reform.

LUMMIS: There’s a big problem in our country with people who want to become legal citizens and the process is so bogged down that they cannot utilize our legal immigration system, so some of them resort to the illegal immigration system.

LASLO: Wyoming’s senior senator, Mike Enzi, says the lack of immigration reform has also kept the state from employing foreign students.

ENZI: We also have kids that graduate from the University of Wyoming with significant degrees, and then we kick them out of the country. And they could make a contribution.

LASLO: A few years ago a bipartisan group of policy makers came together to push an immigration overhaul through Congress. The effort was derailed and leaders of both parties shelved the topic. But many Republicans who were mostly silent on immigration for the past two years gained a new sense of urgency after this year's returns came in showing Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Democrats.

KYL: We have to get this ball rolling. We have to have a discussion that is sensible – that is calm.

LASLO: Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl was one of the first lawmakers to unveil a new proposal after the election. His legislation would allow children of undocumented workers a path to permanent residency – but not the citizenship promised in the Democrat’s DREAM Act. Critics say that’s because GOP leaders don’t want to create millions of new Democratic voters. Besides what to do with immigrant children, there’s also the estimated twelve million undocumented workers in the U.S. – a problem Congresswoman Lummis is acutely aware of.

LUMMIS: It is a big problem. It’s a big issue and we should ignore it for now.

LASLO: She says if lawmakers focus on contentious issues a divided Congress won’t be able to make any gains on immigration.  

LUMMIS: We need to focus on the areas where we can agree, where there’s some bipartisan and bicameral agreement and let that one big issue that could really prevent good things from happening in other areas of immigration law – we just need to let it go for now.

LASLO: Senator Enzi echoes Lummis’ concerns about trying to fit every issue into one massive, catch-all bill. He says it would just die on the vine.  

ENZI: Well, you know we worked on it before and had we broke it down into a step by step process instead of a comprehensive one I think we would have made great progress and had some good immigration reform. But if we’re going to try to do it comprehensive again - when you do something comprehensive there are always a few votes that get peeled off for each of the different things that in there and you wind up without a majority and you wind up just like we did last time.

LASLO: But a piecemeal approach doesn’t seem to be good enough for many Democrats, especially members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The 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. Arizona Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva is a leading Hispanic voice in Congress. He says he's glad Republicans are offering proposals. But he says unless Republicans broaden their scope they’re going to continue angering Hispanic voters.

GRIJALVA: So the wool is not going to get pulled over the Latino voters. 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 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.

LASLO: Grijalva and others are drawing their line in the sand on offering a path to citizenship to undocumented workers in the U-S.

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

LASLO: As for Republicans, many have their own line in the sand. Here’s Wyoming Senator John Barrassos’.

BARRASSO: First you have to secure the border, and there are different ways to do that, but the border isn’t secure yet.

LASLO: In January the 113th Congress will be seated. The new session offers lawmakers in both parties a fresh opportunity to negotiate a solution to the nation’s immigration woes; though immigration groups worry Republicans will block the effort.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Matt Laslo in Washington.