Las Cruces Sun-News: Martin Heinrich: Republicans in House must act quickly to pass immigration reform

By:  U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich

As a country, we value the twin promises of freedom and opportunity. Those ideals are important no matter where you were born. Our immigrant communities have helped write the economic, social and cultural story of America. But our immigration system is broken. As the son of an immigrant, I'm especially concerned by the refusal of Republican leaders in the House of Representatives to act on this issue.

After a vigorous public debate, the Senate passed a common-sense proposal to reform our country's immigration policies. That was over a year ago.

The bipartisan Senate bill would modernize our immigration system to meet the needs of our economy, provide an accountable pathway to earned citizenship for the undocumented workers currently living in the shadows, and dramatically strengthen security at our borders.

The public — including faith-based organizations, educators, local elected officials, small businesses, and many others in New Mexico — overwhelmingly supports immigration reform. But here we are a year later, and House Republicans are still unwilling to even hold an up or down vote on the Senate's proposal.

But now things are urgent. Public support and good economics have not been enough to convince Republican leaders to hold a vote on immigration reform, but they can't turn a blind eye to the current humanitarian crisis along our nation's southern border.

The surge of unaccompanied children from Central America crossing into the United States is of great concern to all of us. I've heard from a number of New Mexicans who want to know what can be done to help these children, many of whom have traveled more than a thousand miles, fleeing violence and extreme poverty in their home countries. Many of these kids become victims of violent crime or abuse. Often, they're targeted by gangs, cartels, and human traffickers, who prey on them by making empty promises to reunite them with their relatives in the United States.

The Administration has taken steps to provide emergency relief to these minors. And Vice President Joe Biden and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been working with the governments of several Central American nations to combat gang violence, spur economic development, and improve the prospects for the children who will be returning home.

As part of the government-wide response, DHS recently established a temporary facility for undocumented parents and their children at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center's campus in Artesia, N.M. The holding area at the Artesia facility is one of several ways that DHS is increasing its capacity to expedite the repatriation of the increasing number of families with children crossing the southwest border.

It's crucial that we provide safe, secure, and humane care to these children and families in the government's custody in Artesia. The horrific journey and violence many of these individuals have endured before arriving in America has not deterred their hopes of a better life. To treat them badly, or force these families into the lowest of detention conditions won't either. And to do so would be contrary to our values of compassion, respect, and dignity for all people that I — and most of us — try to uphold.

In recent days, we've heard Republicans accuse President Obama of not doing enough to clarify American immigration policy for young Central Americans who may have been falsely told that they'd find flexibility in our system. But those criticisms ring hollow. If House Republicans wanted to help solve this crisis and make our policies crystal clear, they would pass the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill.

The bill that we passed a year ago includes important measures that would help strengthen our border and address this humanitarian crisis. It includes provisions for family reunification and for the protection of children who have been the victims of human trafficking. The bill also includes measures that would address refugee and asylum laws. Notably, the bill was widely supported by both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

We are a nation of laws, and our immigration laws are broken and badly in need of repair. Each day House Republicans fail to act on immigration reform is also another day our nation and the economy suffer. The Senate has given House Republicans every reason to debate and pass accountable immigration reform. I urge House Republican leaders to allow a vote on the Senate bill as soon as they reconvene after the July 4th holiday. Our families and our economy will be better for it.

Martin Heinrich, D, represents New Mexico in the U.S. Senate.