SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Congress has been knotted up with budget and tax negotiations this session. But one issue certain to move to the forefront in 2013 is immigration reform. On Wednesday of this week, seven of the nation's largest Latino organizations as well as a labor union held a news conference to say they plan to keep a scorecard of the immigration debate in the coming year. Eliseo Medina is the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
ELISEO MEDINA: Thank you very much for inviting me, Scott.
SIMON: And why does your union take this as such a serious issue?
MEDINA: Well, for us as a union, about a quarter of our membership is Latino - a number of them are undocumented. And these are people who work really hard to get an opportunity at the American dream, but unfortunately because of their undocumented status, no matter how successful the union is in improving their wages and their working conditions, when they leave the workplace, they're subject to arrests and deportation leaving their families behind. And we think this is a system that doesn't work and we need to fix it.
SIMON: Exit polls from the 2012 election indicate that President Obama may have received about 71 percent of the Latino vote. Do you feel that gives you not just a seat at the table but an agenda you would like...
MEDINA: Well, you know, we've been working really hard, Scott, for a number of years to make sure that Latinos, that their voices are heard. And I think November 6th sent a very powerful message to the Republican Party that continuing to demonize and attack immigrants at the state level, where they are passing laws, like the one in Arizona, Senate Bill 1070, or in Alabama. And so I think that we have, for the first time, both political parties cognizant that they need to deal with this issue. And whichever party really listens to our concerns stands to get our votes.
SIMON: Let me ask you to take half a step back. What did the Democratic Party really do to earn your vote? Deportations are at an all-time high. Haven't the Democrats enforced the law too?
MEDINA: They have. But I think that there was a difference. The Democrats, for example, voted in overwhelming numbers for the DREAM Act, which was blocked by the Republican Party. A bill was introduced for comprehensive immigration reform. The Democrats voted overwhelmingly for it. It was blocked by the Republicans.
SIMON: When we say comprehensive immigration reform, what two or three things do you think constitute that?
MEDINA: Well, I think that we need a way for the 11 million people who are in this country to legalize a status and earn their way to citizenship. I think we need to come up with a system where the immigrants of the future can come to this country in a safe, legal and orderly manner, instead of having to walk through the desert and putting their lives in jeopardy.
SIMON: When crossing the border illegally.
MEDINA: Yes. Obviously, there's going to have to be discussion also about border security. But we would like the kind of border security that instead of focusing on farm workers, nannies and factory workers, it focuses on drug runners and criminals who would do us harm. So, I think that we need a change in focus. And I'm hoping that we have that debate this year in the Congress.
SIMON: Let me read a couple of quotes back to you. New York Times says you said make no mistake, we will be watching - talking about Congress. Going to prepare this report card that will show, quote," who stood with us and who stood against us on immigration reform." What earns you the designation of standing with us or against us?
MEDINA: Well, you know, we have made crystal clear with our votes that we expect comprehensive immigration reform. And in order for us to be able to know who is helping or who is hindering, we will be keeping very close tabs on what members of Congress do all during 2013. And we're going to say to the Latino and immigration community, here's what they did. Do they deserve your vote in 2014?
SIMON: Are you prepared to support of a Republican candidate who votes for immigration reform?
MEDINA: We don't want to be in a situation where we have two parties - one that takes Latinos for granted and one who attacks...
SIMON: You mean the Democrats.
MEDINA: Yeah. And the Republicans, who then think that they can ignore us or attack us. I would love to be in a situation where both parties feel that they need us. And therefore they're going to pay attention to the issues that matter to us.
SIMON: Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasury of the Service Employees International Union. Thanks very much for being with us.
MEDINA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.