Joe Heck on immigration: ‘This is not a Mexican issue, this is not a Hispanic issue’

July 5, 2013

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) is one of about two dozen House Republicans facing pressure from Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups to support the bipartisan immigration reform bill passed last week in the Senate.


Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.). (AP)

As we write in today's Washington Post, Heck is eager to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, but knows he faces tough resistance from some of his own colleagues.

Heck agreed to a phone interview on Monday to discuss his position on immigration and the new pressure he's facing from Democrats.

A transcript of the exchange, slightly edited for clarity and length, appears below:

Ed O'Keefe: So what's going to happen with immigration in the House?

Joe Heck: "Obviously those decisions will be made by Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte.

"Everything I’ve heard is that the Senate bill isn’t going to be brought up in the House.

"I’ve been pretty straightforward and consistent in where I am on immigration reform, what the things are that I’m looking for in a bill to support. And if those things come out in the bill that the House brings to the floor, then I’ll be supportive."

Remind me what those must-have items are for you.

Heck: "Well first and foremost, there’s got to be increased border security that can’t repeat the mistakes that were made in 1986. Border security has to be measurable, it has to be proven effective. I think that the provisions that are in the Senate bill, the infrastructure provisions are worthwhile and could probably do the job.

"My concern is how they measure it in the Senate bill. I need something that’s a little more concrete. When they talk about those provisions being 90 percent effective, being defined as the number of apprehensions and contacts divided by the total number of illegal crossings in a fiscal year, how do you come up with that denominator? If you didn’t catch them or turn them back, how do you know that they crossed the border? So how do you get to a 90 percent effective rate.

"The second piece was what do we do as far as employment? So we have in the Senate bill a good agricultural temporary worker program, we have revisions for the H1B and J1B visa programs for high-skilled workers. And I think those things are good – we have a broken legal immigration system that impedes individuals that would bring some type of benefit to the United States from getting here.

"We have a merit-based immigration program in the Senate bill, which I think is also a proper move. Where you’re looking at assigning points based on certain criteria and based on the needs of the country and that’s how we decide who gets a visa. I think that’s a good move.

"I think mandatory E-Verify, with all employers needing to be on board in four years, it phases it based on your number of employers,  but everybody by four years, that’s important. So I think we address the issue with E-Verify and the worker visa program and address the need of our employers and our work force. So I think that’s a decent approach.

"The next piece was what to do with just the general immigration system. So I talk about moving to the merit-based immigration system, so I think that’s a good move.

"The next thing has to do with the DREAMers. I think that the Senate bill changes up the DREAM Act just a little bit... My position with the DREAM Act is that you certainly have to have been here before the age of 16, you have to show a full commitment in the military, which in the Senate bill they increase it from two years to four years. But I also want to see an educational product – not just that you went to school for two years. So I’ve said you need to have a degree – it could be an associate’s degree after two years. It could even be, bring me a certification of VOTECH education. You graduate high school, you go to some VOTECH school and you learn how to be an auto mechanic. You could do that in 12 to 18 months.

"One of the things – unless I missed it, and again I just read through the Senate bill over the weekend – is that they do not include an upper-limit age, which was originally in the DREAM Act. But theoretically, if you were here before age 16 but you’re now 50 years old, you could theoretically qualify for the provisions in the Senate bill and I don’t agree with that. I think if you’re talking about DREAMers, it’s got to be teens and young adults. So I would like to see a maximum age put back into that.

"And the last piece is a pathway to citizenship. I think there are reasonable steps that the Senate bill puts into place. The issue that I have is that there’s a provision where everything is pegged on being able to go from RPI [Registered Provisional Immigrant] status to green card status that says that if we don’t do all these border security things within 10 years, then they’re waived. And I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think if we’re saying that we’re going to put these things in place, then moving forward, we have to put these things in place.

"So like any 1,198-page bill, there are some good things in there, there are some bad things in there. I hope that when those provisions are addressed in the House that we have the opportunity to tighten up the areas that need to be tightened."

You’ve clearly read through the bill and arguably better prepared than many of your colleagues in both chambers and both parties. You’ve done your homework – and with good reason. You’re facing a lot of pressure here back home. What kind of feedback are you hearing from constituents over the past few months?

Heck: "It’s interesting, because I have a very good relationship with the Latino community. And most of the feedback isn’t coming from the Latino community, it’s coming from other Democratic political activists that are trying to make this a political issue. In fact, you may know the name of Astrid Silva, she was in D.C. last week in the Senate chamber, it was a story that Harry Reid told about a DREAMer. She was there for the vote.

"Well, she came to my office and visited with me last week as well. And her and I have had multiple discussion on this issue and she agrees with where I am. Those things are reasonable things. She’s kind of the face of the DREAMers here in Southern Nevada.

"I’ve met the Latino Chamber and have laid out what I need to see, and they say, you know Joe, those things aren’t unreasonable. And they agree with them. Especially when I talk about the DREAM Act, that you can’t just go sit in a classroom for two years and then apply for citizenship.

"For those that have skin in the game, for those that have vested interest in the outcome of CIR [comprehensive immigration reform], we have a great relationship and an open and ongoing dialogue. It’s the Democratic operatives who want to make political hay out of this by picking and choosing what I say and when I say it to try to portray my position something that it is not."

Do you hear from your more conservative constituents?

Heck: "Of course, on the conservative side people say we don’t want you give any amnesty, I don’t want you to take up the Senate bill.

"I can tell you, I just left the Republican Men’s Club monthly meeting, where I was the guest speaker. And I went over the immigration bill with them. One thing about me is that I don’t change my position based on the group I’m talking to, so I laid out exactly what I just told you. I went through the bill, here’s what I think it good, here’s what I think is bad.

"So I read through it with them. And of course there are people there who like with anything will fundamentally disagree and don’t want anything and there are those there who said, 'You know, we didn’t know that was in there. We didn’t understand that that’s how it was going to work until you told us.'

"I didn’t have anyone come up to me at the end of the meeting to complain about my position."

You’ve said that top leaders and Chairman Goodlatte will have the final say about what to move within the House. Have you talked to them, or what would you tell them?

Heck: "Well, from my personal perspective, I’d much rather prefer smaller, more manageable bills, because there’s less opportunity to wreak havoc in a smaller bill where things are more transparent. And I’ll give you an example. In the Senate bill, there’s a provision that was tacked on that has to do with the Youth Job Corps. Now, as a workforce investment act item, it has nothing to do with immigration, it doesn’t create jobs for DREAMers or new immigrants, it’s for underprivileged youth between the ages of 16 and 25. And it’s going to be funded by an additional fee tacked on to the guest worker program paid for by employers.

"Look, I’m very active in educational workforce investment issues. I sit on the Education and Workforce Committee. I’ve introduced legislation to make the Workforce Investment Act work better. It has no place in an immigration bill. And that’s what happens when you have an 1,198-page immigration bill.

"So, I think if we address it in smaller, more manageable, digestible, understandable and transparent pieces that we will have a greater opportunity to actually reach an end point and try to bring up an almost 1,200-page bill."

But would you be willing to do one big conference report with the Senate?

Heck: "This is my personal position and not necessarily what leadership has in mind or a committee has in mind. But I feel that if we pass out five, six or seven individual bills that we then go to conference with that package of bills and the Senate bill and then conference it. I think that would be the most reasonable pathway.

"There are some who will say don’t go to conference at all and it’s because it’ll only force the Senate bill. Look, every major piece of legislation that’s passed by the House and the Senate go to conference. That’s how it’s done. We do it on all the authorization bills we do it on the appropriations bills. This is no different. When we talk about regular order, regular order is each house writing their bills in their committee process, passing them off their floor and then going to conference with the Senate to work out differences. That’s the system that we work under, it should be no different with this."

Well that gets to my next question: What do you say to your colleagues who are in the so-called “Absolutely Not Caucus” who don’t want to move on this issue at all, but by extension might make it for more difficult for someone like you to win reelection?

Heck: "I’m hopeful that, based on what the Speaker about not bringing up a bill if it doesn’t have 218 votes, that that No Caucus is less than 20 votes.

"I think that in talking to those individuals that have a zero percent or a non-measurable Hispanic constituency in these R-plus infinity districts, they have to understand that for those of us who represent districts regardless of registration edge that have a large foreign population. This is not a Mexican issue, this is not a Hispanic issue. This is an issue about a broken legal immigration system. That’s what it’s about. If they would understand that it’s more than just one ethnic group that we’re talking about here. I’ve had this discussion just as frequently with my Asian American voters as I do with my Hispanic constituents. This crosses ethnic boundaries. And they’ve got to understand that we’ve got to address this broken immigration system or, quite honestly, we maintain the status quo and we continue to see a growing illegal population."

Read the full story and share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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