DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Let's explore a key point of debate over changing immigration law. President Obama is pushing to change the status of millions of people in the United States illegally.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship. But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.
GREENE: After last year's election loss, driven in part by Latino votes, Republicans now acknowledge they need to do something. The question is how much change they're willing to accept.
INSKEEP: And the toughest debate may come in the House of Representatives where the Republicans deliberately put a Latino congressman, Raul Labrador of Idaho, on a committee that is considering immigration. He's a favorite of the Tea Party and an immigration lawyer. Labrador insists he wants immigrants to get a legal status that stops short of citizenship.
REPRESENTATIVE RAUL LABRADOR: The people that came here illegally, knowingly, I don't think they should have a path to citizenship. If you knowingly violated our law, you violated our sovereignty, I think we should normalize your status, but we should not give you a pathway to citizenship. Now, there's going to be...
INSKEEP: Normalize meaning you get a visa, you get a green card, you can work. Is that what you mean?
LABRADOR: Not a green card and visa, some sort of, you know, some people are calling it a blue card or a red card. Just something that gives them the ability to be in the United States, to come out of the shadows, to work, to travel, to go back home to their home countries, you know, to visit family, all those things. I think we should treat them with dignity, but we should also be fair to the millions of people that are waiting in line that are trying to do it the right way.
INSKEEP: Let me imagine the most suspicious thing that a Democrat might say about this proposal. You would like people who are here illegally to be legalized and be allowed to work and participate in the economy as they already do, but you don't want to make it too easy for them to become citizens and actually be able to vote.
LABRADOR: That's not the issue. The issue is that the American people are fair people. They believe that we have a broken system that hasn't been working for 20 years. But they also respect their citizenship and they want to make sure that we don't encourage people in the future to come back to the United States. Remember when the last amnesty happened? We were supposed to only take care of three million people.
INSKEEP: This is in the 1980s under President Reagan.
LABRADOR: In the 1986, under President Reagan. And what happened is that instead of fixing the problem for those people, what we did is we all of a sudden opened the floodgates. So people came into the United States illegally, because they said if they did one amnesty they're going to do another one. And if you want citizenship why wait, you know, in line, just go ahead and get into the United States and you're going to be able to be a citizen of the United States. I want to discourage that. I also want to discourage employers who are hiring people illegally, because they know that, number one, in the past they were being punished. Number two, if they were punished it was kind of a slap on the wrist. And number three, it was cheaper for them to hire people that were illegal. So we really need to think about this broadly.
INSKEEP: But let me ask about this question of citizenship and voting, because this does enter into the discussion, and in fact, there are Republicans who will suggest that Democrats just want to legalize a bunch of illegal immigrants so that they can vote for Democrats. Are there people in your party who have the mirror image of that concern, that they want to prevent people from voting if they can?
LABRADOR: You know, I don't think voting should even be part of the question. These are people that violated our laws. Why are we even talking about them having the ability to vote? This is not about politics. In fact, as Republicans, we need to understand that we're not going to get any benefit from fixing the immigration system. I think the Democrats, at this point, because you have the president who is in power, are going to get all the accolades. We just need to do it because it's the right thing to do.
INSKEEP: So your position is not the same as a lot of Democrats on this issue. President Obama has specifically said he wants a pathway to citizenship. It sounds like you are willing to make it possible for people to eventually become citizens but that they should have no special preference. Do you feel you're in a significantly different spot than the president there, or are you just phrasing things a little differently here?
LABRADOR: I hope it's not significantly different, but it might be, because the question that I have for the president and for some Democrats is whether they want a political victory or a policy victory? If they want a political victory they're going to draw a fine red line and they're going to say, either pathway to citizenship or nothing else. They know that the Republicans in the House are not going to be able to vote for that, and then they're going to be able to beat us over the head in 2014 and say look, the Republicans don't like immigrants, which is not true. We want to face this problem in the House of Representatives. We have a large majority of the House of Representatives that wants to do something right now.
INSKEEP: Well, just so I understand the difference here, because Democrats talk about a pathway to citizenship; you talk about giving people normal status then they can apply for citizenship through the normal channels. Do you believe that under your proposal, the vast majority of those 11 or 12 million people - or all of them - would be able to get in the position where they could at least get in line for citizenship, or would that be barred for some people or would some people be forced to return to their home countries?
LABRADOR: No. What would happen is that some people would remain here in whatever the status is that we give them, because not everyone has a job that qualifies for a green card. So, some people would be like any other non-immigrant status. We have, you know, different kinds of workers who come to the United States. They could continue to reapply for their status, but it doesn't mean that they become citizens of the United States. There's no right to become a citizen of the United States. There's a lot of questions, that are being asked by the Republicans, that I think are very valid questions. And the most important one, I believe, is what do we do to make sure that 10 years from now we don't have this same problem?
INSKEEP: Raul Labrador is a Republican congressman from Idaho. Congressman, thanks very much.
LABRADOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.