“Let me start with blending what I think will happen with where I am, personally.”
As comprehensive immigration reform remains stalled by House Republicans after bipartisan passage in the Senate, Representative Lee Terry, Omaha’s 8-term Republican congressman is back in Omaha on “break,” with a jammed schedule of community events.
That includes a townhall meeting at Omaha South High School on Wednesday, Sep. 4, 7 p.m. where the public will be able to ask him questions and express their concerns.
“Our leadership has made it very clear that the Republicans will do something on immigration, but we will not do the Senate bill,” said Terry. “There’s almost a universal lack of support [among House Republicans] for the Senate bill.”
Terry outlined the Republican House plan, all of which is a part of the Senate bill -- five, maybe more, bills covering border security, E-Verify employment checks, accepting more immigrants skilled in science, technology, engineering and math and a guest worker reform.
“That leaves one thing,” said Terry. “What do we do with the people already here? That’s where things get sticky. Now, here’s where the politics come in.”
“Ninety percent of Congress agrees with [the House Republican bills]. The 8 [out of] 10 percent opposed to that are in the Republican party, led by Steve King. They want nothing. ‘You broke the law . . . self-deport and come back.’ They say oppose every bill . . . because they say it’s a pathway to conference.”
“We will go to conference with the Senate to negotiate the differences between what the House passes and the Senate’s bill,” explained Terry. “They think the outcome of that will come back [as a pathway to citizenship]. If that comes back to the House, most Democrats, 98 percent, and enough of our conference [House Republicans] will vote for it, so there’s more than enough votes to pass it. They think the only way to stop this is to stop any vote from the House. I’m not in that group.”
While Terry says he has not changed his mind on citizenship, he has changed his position on residency status.
“I’ve said this for 10 years and haven’t deviated from it,” said Terry. “I will not agree to a pathway to citizenship unless they do go back home, but I will be open to a permanent legal status. They come out of the shadows, they get a social security number. They get to have a driver’s license. They are completely legal, but you don’t give them the brass ring [citizenship].
“If you really want to become a citizen, then you return to your home country and really get at the back of the line.”
Here Terry’s group of House Republicans diverge from a majority of Congress and they sound willing to scuttle comprehensive immigration reform on this point, despite bipartisan support.
“With the Senate plan they have to wait and pay a fee,” explained Terry. “My thought is you’re still rewarding them. You’re still giving the ultimate prize, the reward of citizenship. For the rule of law people and me, you’re getting a reward for going around the system. … If you’re going to sit down and really negotiate [with Democrats], you can’t say citizenship or no deal. Because at that point and time, it’s going to be no deal.”
“The extra penalty is if you want citizenship, you will have to go home. If you want to stay here and work here for the rest of your life, or 5 years or 10 years or whatever, you’ll be legal. You can’t be used by nefarious employers.”
Bad employers are one of a few reasons Terry cites when explaining why the House Republican plan works and what he calls the “Appleseed” model – “open borders, pathways to citizenship” – won’t be sustainable, including welfare costs. Nebraska Appleseed is a progressive nonprofit advocating for comprehensive immigration reform as part of its mission to “fight for justice and opportunity for all Nebraskans,”
“I don’t think borders are secure, “ said Terry. Citing the recent economic downturn as the reason for a record number of illegal border crossings, Terry explained the importance of his E-Verify legislation requiring employers to verify the legal immigration status of employees.
“The other way we make sure there’s not another wave (of undocumented immigrants) is E-Verify,” said Terry. “Because the employers have a responsibility here to hire only people that have a legal status. A tough, mandatory E-Verify, and tough means if you’re hiring undocumented workers then you’re going to get hammered. We’re talking jail time instead of just a fine.”
“If you’re telling me you want to hire an undocumented, what goes through my mind is you want to take advantage of somebody. You want to provide them too low of wages, you don’t want to provide them benefits. You don’t want to do what you have to do if you’re hiring a legal worker.”
Without E-Verify and permanent legal status, Terry sees a “big issue” with increased costs to social welfare programs.
“What we don’t want is a big transfer to social welfare programs,” he said. “We want them to be working, we want them to be insured and that’s really why you got to give them a permanent legal status.”
While there is little concrete evidence showing to what level undocumented immigrants currently use social services, Terry is certain they are despite federal bans on giving aid – mostly food stamps -- to women and children who aren’t citizens.
“Technically they are not eligible for social programs now, but no one is enforcing that,” said Terry. “So if you walk in to the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) office, they will not ask and if you left it blank on the form, they will not ask if you’re illegal or not. My sister used to do that [work in the WIC office] and that’s what she told me.”
Terry promises obtaining permanent, legal status will be straight-forward.
“You wouldn’t wait in line for a legal status, there will be a process,” he said. “You go into an office, you will be interviewed, you will give your real names and they will check to make sure you don’t have a criminal background, maybe a physical or whatever criteria we come up with. If you clear all of that, the next thing is fill out this form for your social security card. It’s not a real wait or a line.”
And as further evidence of his movement on immigration, Terry did find an exception for the DREAMers.
“DREAMers will be part of this,” said Terry. “As a matter of fact, I’m willing . . . I’m going to get myself in trouble now . . . if you went through school here, I’m willing to put them on a path to citizenship because they’re innocent parties. They didn’t make the decision to skirt around the law. So I think we should treat them as a different group because they did not make an intentional decision to get around the law.”