Cornyn Addresses Inaugural Hispanic Leadership Network Conference
Today, I addressed the 2011 Inaugural Conference of the Hispanic Leadership Network in Coral Gables, FL. The following are my remarks, as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Jorge Plasencia. I want to thank our co-chairs for this event, Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. I also want to acknowledge President Uribe of Colombia, Governor Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman and everyone at the American Action Network and American Action Forum and everyone here in South Florida, who have been such gracious hosts to all of us.
Our topic this morning is immigration and security. I think we have a great panel to speak on this topic and I really look forward to hearing your questions – because I think honest dialogue is the key to moving forward on these issues. I have the privilege – and the challenge – of framing our discussion this morning and giving you the perspective from the great state of Texas and the United States Senate.
As we all know, Congress last debated comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. A lot of things have changed since then – both on the ground and in Washington. Some of these changes make legislative action more difficult while others make it more urgent and some things haven’t changed much at all. Understanding what’s changed and what hasn’t is the key to moving forward on immigration and security in the new Congress.
So what has changed since Congress last considered a comprehensive bill in 2007? First, violence along the border has gotten a lot worse. Those of you from Texas or other border states know what I’m talking about. Rivalries among drug cartels have claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people in Mexico over the last few years, according to the Mexican Attorney General. Many areas just across the border from the United States are not safe for U.S. citizens or for our friends in Mexico.
The cartels are even recruiting in American public schools, so the Border Patrol launched “Operation Detour” a few years ago to help our students resist them. In Rio Grande City, Texas, kids were crying mid-way through the first video because the night before a classmate had died while running drugs. After the presentation in McAllen, Texas, a 14 year-old girl told the Border Patrol that her father had been the victim of cross-border abduction, and her family feared retaliation from the cartel if they reported it. Talk to anyone who lives near the border: things are different now. The fear and frustration are real and they are rising.
Second, there’s also an increasing awareness that individuals crossing our southern border are coming from much further away than Mexico. During the last fiscal year, Customs and Border Protection saw an increase in apprehensions of illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Yemen; more than a dozen each from Iran and Iraq, and more than 1,100 illegal immigrants from China.
These may seem like big numbers, but remember that these are only the individuals we know about. They don’t include the tens of thousands of people from dozens of nations apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities. Like cartel violence, increasing illegal immigration from nations beyond the Western Hemisphere, especially from nations known to harbor terrorists should strengthen our resolve to fix our broken immigration system.
On the other hand, the economy is in much worse shape than it was in 2007, and that has made immigration reform far more difficult. The national unemployment rate for December went down to 9.4 percent last month. But in the Hispanic community, unemployment remains much higher at 13 percent. Last week, Ben Bernanke testified before the Senate Budget Committee on which I serve. He said that ‘it could take four to five more years for the job market to normalize fully.’
Long term unemployment is not only a painful reality for millions of American families, it also threatens America’s identity as a welcoming nation and a land of opportunity.
After all, America became a nation of immigrants because we consistently created job opportunities for our own people and for newcomers and our economy is not creating enough jobs for anybody right now. So it’s no wonder that higher unemployment makes immigration reform seem much less urgent to many Americans right now.
Another big change in recent years has been within the Democratic Party. They have controlled Congress for four years, have occupied the White House for two years, and yet they’ve broken every promise to lead on immigration reform. During his campaign, President Obama promised both LULAC and the National Council of La Raza that immigration reform would be a top priority during his first year in office, but all that changed. By this time last year, the President gave immigration reform barely a mention in his State of the Union Address – just 38 words out of more than 7,000 spoken.
The majority leader also made a lot of campaign promises to the large Hispanic community in his home state of Nevada, but he broke every promise to bring a comprehensive bill to the Senate floor.
Of course, he also said that he didn’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican. I say it’s pretty easy for any American to be a Republican after they’ve been lied to repeatedly by the leaders of the other party. And it’s easy to be cynical about the prospects for immigration reform when the White House and the United States Senate are still being run by those same people.
Of course, the American people changed Congress on November 2nd and the new Congress represents the increasing reluctance of the American people to pass massive legislative reforms on any topic. Now I believe that immigration is one of those issues that can’t be addressed effectively on a piecemeal basis. This isn’t just a political calculation, it’s the policy reality.
Every component of our broken immigration system is connected to many other parts. Border security and interior enforcement go hand-in-hand, legal immigration directly impacts illegal immigration, and so on. Unfortunately, the last Congress really poisoned the well for thousand-page reform bills. The stimulus bill was a failure, ObamaCare was an outrage. Senate Republicans did manage to stop the nearly 2,000 page spending snowstorm that the majority tried to push through during the lame-duck session.
But that episode only reinforced the resistance of many Americans to any legislation that’s labeled as comprehensive. Perhaps the most interesting change over the last few years has been the evolving dialogue within the Hispanic community. The national Pew Hispanic Center poll regularly asks about the impact of illegal immigration on Hispanics already living in the U.S.
In 2007, 50 percent of U.S. Hispanics said the impact was positive and only 20 percent said it was negative. But in 2010, right before the election, the poll found that Hispanics are now almost equally split: 29 percent now say the illegal immigration has a positive impact on the Hispanic community; 31 percent now say it’s negative; And 30 percent say illegal immigration doesn’t make much difference either way. And that same poll showed that Hispanics ranked immigration as only the fourth most important issue before the election behind education, jobs, and health care.
So what do all these changes mean? Do we just give up on fixing our broken immigration system? Should we just kick the can down the road a couple more years? I say no, because for all the things that have changed, a couple of things haven’t changed. One thing that hasn’t changed is that immigration remains a federal responsibility. Another thing that hasn’t changed is that we must find a credible and compassionate solution to the 12 million illegal immigrants who are living in this country.
And the biggest thing that hasn’t changed is that our immigration system is broken. Our border is not secure, millions who come here legally overstay their visas, many immigrants who play by the rules have to wait years to enter this country, our documents are easily forged, our system is overly bureaucratic and litigious, and at the end of the day, our broken immigration system serves neither our interests nor our values.
One thing I assure you that hasn’t changed is my own commitment to help fix our broken immigration system. I’ve sponsored immigration reform bills in the past. A couple were comprehensive bills, others addressed specific challenges like strengthening border security, modernizing our visa programs, and upgrading our ports of entry. I don’t think we should introduce legislation just as an excuse to put out a press release. That’s not the kind of respectful process the American people want.
I believe we need a candid, transparent dialogue. I believe all voices must be heard. I think all of us have to get down to the details – and answer the most challenging questions that any responsible reform must address. I’m looking forward to some of that candid dialogue right here during this panel discussion. And I’m also looking forward to continuing the conversation with all of us who want to fix our broken immigration system.