Is Senator-Designate Gillibrand Shifting Her Position On Immigration?

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
Gillibrand

Gillibrand (Image: El Diario/AP)

The immigration-related backlash against the designation of Kirsten Gillibrand continued over the weekend, when New York’s main Hispanic newspaper El Diario/La Prensa called the congresswoman “a disappointing choice” to succeed Hillary Clinton as U.S. Senator from New York.

In the meantime, Gillibrand –who will take the oath of office Tuesday— met with Queens elected officials and local leaders and promised to be more open-minded about the issue.

She also gave a one-on-one interview to local news channel NY1. Some of her remarks were interpreted as a shift in tone on the hotly-contested issue of immigration reform, although after listening to the entire interview that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“I think amnesty is the wrong approach,” Gillibrand said, in the quote that El Diario highlighted. “I would do it very differently, I would right-size immigration and make sure that every person who wants to be working in this country legally has a way to be here legally and to come in properly and make it so that they never have to worry about it.”

The original El Diario/La Prensa report –headlined “Senator shifts tone on immigration”– translated this as Gillibrand saying that “every person who wants to be working in this country legally has a way to stay here legally.”

But the senator-designee seems to have been referring to her idea for a guest-worker program, a program for people who have yet to enter the U.S., rather than to the 12 million undocumented workers already here. When “be here” was translated to “stay here,” the reference seems to have shifted from the former to the latter.

Still, the NY1 interview is useful to get a sense of Gillibrand’s thinking on immigration. (See a full transcript, made by Feet in 2 Worlds, below. If you want to watch it on NY1’s website, her answer starts halfway through the video.)

Gillibrand says “amnesty is the wrong approach,” because “half this country will never accept amnesty.” She says the current backlog in family reunification visas is “unacceptable.”

She proposes building a system “that can work and right-size immigration, so we can have the right number of immigrants here and we don’t have that terrible backlog for family reunification.” The solution she offers in this regard is a guest-worker program through which workers would come for five years, and then have the option to renew their visas for another five years. They could then apply for U.S. citizenship.

Here is the transcript:

My view is that we need to right-size immigration. There’s two different areas: There’s immigration for family reunification, which is very important, and it was very offensive to me that, when the Senate wrote the bill, that they accepted there was an eight-year backlog. That’s unacceptable. If there’s an eight-year backlog, that should be reduced to one year, to six months. And if it’s because you don’t have enough resources, you need a lot more lawyers, you need a lot more case managers, well, hire them, and put the resources in the government so we can actually make that backlog straight down to less than a year. That’s problem number one.

Problem number two is the other part of immigration: economic immigration, folks who work in various industries where we rely on immigrant workers. One of those industries, in my district, was agriculture. We have such a great need for immigrant workers in the agricultural industry, but I want those workers to be here legally.

I think amnesty is the wrong approach and I’ll tell you why: Half this country will never accept amnesty, it will not work for them, they will not vote for it, it will never pass. So my view is, how do we have the right size in immigration in this country to fill all these jobs that folks are doing now, that they enjoy doing, that our economy desperately needs? That’s part of our community, but they should be here legally.

So the way you do it is you create a system that works for everyone. And so you have the right number of visas, so people can come here legally, fill those jobs and be part of the system. But having a system that doesn’t allow for that guarantees illegal immigration.

So I think it’s offensive that we don’t build a system that can work and right-size immigration so we can have the right number of immigrants here and we don’t have that terrible backlog for family reunification. So what I wanna do as a senator, and what I tried to do as a House member, is be a person who can offer solutions about how to make this happen.

Because the worst thing about our current system is it’s doing nothing, and that it’s not acceptable. Because so many families live here, and they have to worry that they don’t have the proper status, and that they can’t reunify their families. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy. So what we need to do is have compassion about this, we need to figure out how we can have a system and a procedure in this country so we can have people here legally.

I think amnesty is the wrong approach, I would do it very differently, I would right-size immigration and make sure that every person who wants to be working in this country legally has a way to be here legally and to come in properly and make it so that they never have to worry about it.

And in terms of one of the parts of the legislation, the Senate bill that I didn’t like, and this is very technical but I’ll tell it to you anyway: There’s a big debate about guest workers, and I think the way they framed that was terrible.

What they offered in that bill was, folks would come here for two years and go home for a year, and then come back for two years. That guarantees illegal immigration in two years, because folks aren’t gonna go home, because if they had a job at home or they wanted to stay at home, they wouldn’t be here. So you’re already setting up for failure, so I thought that was a terrible bill.

If we’re gonna have a guest worker program of any kind, I think it should be a five-year visa, renewable for another five years, and then you apply for citizenship. That’s the kind of program that people can count on when they come across, they know they have a job for five years and that they can renew it for another five years so if they wanna be here for a certain amount of time, they can have that consistency and they know what their lives are gonna be like, and then have a way for them to apply for their citizenship.

And also it allows businesses to rely on it. The services industries in this city, the agricultural industry in upstate New York, they can say, ‘These great workers we have, now we can count on, it can be part of our business plan,’ and not have to have so much worry about it. That’s the kind of immigration plan we need and it’s gonna take leadership. And what I’m excited about is I think President Obama will give that leadership.

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