Frustration, questions and a glimmer of hope were evident in a meeting on immigration reform with U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham on Thursday afternoon at the Modesto Chamber of Commerce.
The Republican lawmaker from Turlock met with a small invited group of interested constituents, community organizers and religious leaders to discuss the issue and its status in the House.
Denham met with many members of the informal group previously in June, about the time the U.S. Senate was passing its comprehensive immigration reform bill. He has publicly supported the sweeping legislation, but it has met roadblocks in the House. Many House members are looking at a more piecemeal approach to reform, tackling individual immigration issues in separate bills.
"The Senate bill won't get a vote in the House, and it's something that could have helped this community," Denham said to the some 25 people present. "I am frustrated. I thought we'd get this done before the August work period. I think the Senate made tremendous progress. It was done bipartisan and I thought that would be enough to get the House moving forward."
The assembled group included concerned residents, area attorneys, church pastors, union representatives, chamber members and Latino organizers.
Many wanted to know why a comprehensive reform seemed out of reach in the House.
"I don't know I have a good answer," Denham said. "It probably has a lot more to do with politics than policy."
In the Republican-led House, Denham has been in the minority of his party in calling for a comprehensive immigration package. He admitted to being less optimistic about passing major reforms than he was at their first meeting, which was attended by fewer than 20 people.
"The only reason I'm less optimistic is I've heard these timelines come out several different times now," he said. "This was supposed to be ready in March. We were supposed to be ahead of the Senate because we had our comprehensive bill that has been bipartisan for several terms but then wasn't introduced."
The comprehensive legislation has been worked on by the "Gang of Seven" representatives (three Republicans and four Democrats). Denham said he has met with members of the group, read their drafts and wants to see the legislation brought to the floor.
DREAM Act seen as a must
But those at the event said they didn't care who got a package through, Democrats or Republicans, as long as the legislation encompassed everything from DREAM Act students (often called DREAMers) to a clear pathway to citizenship for all.
The Rev. Joe Duran, with the City Ministry Network and Self-Help Federal Credit Union, pressed Denham on whether he could support a bill with a path toward earned citizenship for undocumented workers. The Senate bill included a path that was expected to take at least 13 years.
"I've been very careful on how I answer this because a pathway to citizenship means so much to so many different people," he said. "I think allowing DREAMers in to serve in our military is one of the greatest honors there is. That is certainly a pathway. So if that's how you want to define it, yes."
In June, Denham introduced the ENLIST (Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training) Act, a bill to allow undocumented youth who were brought into the country the chance to earn citizenship by enlisting in the military. But last year, he voted against the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)Jobs Act in the House, which made visas available to immigrants with degrees in high-tech fields. He told the group he did so because he didn't believe in passing reform "one group at a time."
Area defense attorney and Modesto City Schools Board member Ruben Villalobos said bringing people out of the shadows, from undocumented immigrants to guest workers, should be a priority in any legislation. But he also took issue with the idea of creating a guest worker program without offering earned citizenship.
"There's no such thing as a good guest worker program if that's where it ends," he said. "(If) legal citizenship is not the ultimate goal, then we're turning into Dubai, where they have a class of people who come from other countries to work, but they can't enjoy the full fruits and benefits of citizenship. From slavery to modern day, we've always had a guest worker program."
Politicians need discussion with nation
Still, Denham seemed hopeful with what he called the step-by-step approach many of his House colleagues are taking on immigration reform, splitting the issue into a series of bills voted on in quick succession.
Although he is confident in his positions, he said, many in the House have not faced immigration issues as closely and still need to engage in the discussion on a national level.
"I think it's so important to hear from people like you and other communities around the state and the nation," he said. "And to hear from the faith-based community. The faith-based community is the entire nation. So it is a much easier way to address both Republicans and Democrats in a friendly atmosphere."
On Aug. 16, Denham will attend an Immigration Reform Pilgrimage stop at the Sacred Heart Church in Patterson. More than 600 people are expected to attend the event, which will highlight the need for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship.