By Tovin Lapan
U.S. Rep. Joe Heck knows the "pathway to citizenship" is the sticky part of the immigration-reform debate that sends politicians into frazzled fits of tongue-tied constituent coddling.
The second-term Republican congressman from Henderson has been more forthcoming about his thoughts than many of his GOP counterparts in the House. He calls the recently approved Senate plan to legalize the status and, after a decade or more, provide opportunities for citizenship to the 11 million immigrants residing in the country illegally "reasonable."
Yet, as the House takes a piecemeal approach to addressing the various facets of the immigration system that the Senate bill tackled in one large piece of legislation passed in June, Heck acknowledges there is no guarantee a House bill will emerge that takes on the thorny issue of citizenship.
With the House engaged in formulating a counter to the Senate plan for reforming the immigration system, Heck wants everyone to see the larger picture. To that end, he participated in a panel discussion on immigration Monday morning at the South by Southwest V2V conference at the Cosmopolitan.
"When you first start off, everybody is concentrating on the issue of the undocumented, but as you start to peel back, like we have today with this panel, you realize there is a lot more to immigration reform than just that one piece," Heck said in an interview after the panel.
"There's a whole lot more underlying immigration reform that is critical to the future economy of our nation, whether it's high-tech, whether it's agricultural guest visas, whether it's E-Verify to protect against worker exploitation. There are so many pieces to it. I wish that the discussion was always more comprehensive. Because then I think people would better understand that this truly is in our vital national and economic interests."
Mark Falzone, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonprofit organization that works to influence federal immigration policy and supported passage of the Senate bill, moderated the panel. The event was put on by the forum's "Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform," an organization of religious leaders, law enforcement personnel and business community members seeking to influence Congress.
Joining Heck on the panel were three immigrant startup business founders: Scott Allison, Alex Torrenegra and Andrew Crump. Both the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would expand avenues for high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs to come to the country, and that is where the panelists focused.
Torrenegra, an immigrant from Colombia and CEO of VoiceBunny, said he recently spent $21,000 applying for three high-skilled labor visas. Two of the applications never were processed because the U.S. cap on the visas was met so quickly.
"One application is being looked at, but the other two were $14,000 wasted," Torrenegra said.
Torrenegra, whose company is based in San Francisco, said he ended up hiring one of the "very talented" people he was trying to bring to the United States to work from abroad. He paid for that employee to hire his own staff of four people, jobs Torrenegra said could have gone to people in the United States.
Crump, whom the Vegas Tech Fund lured to Las Vegas, echoed Torrenegra's thoughts. He said his small company, Bluefields, spent three months and $50,000 on flights, lawyers and application fees to get the right team in place, and not all of its visa requests were granted.
"I'd seriously question whether I would go the same route again," said Crump, a London native.
The comments resonated with Heck, who expressed concern the U.S. was falling behind other countries in how it lured talented workers and entrepreneurs.
After the panel, Heck visited a Roberto's Taco Shop in Henderson where he met with Reynaldo Robledo and Rogelio Robledo, members of the of the family that founded the chain almost 50 years ago. Heck learned the ropes of running a Mexican restaurant, discussed policy with the Robledos, and expanded on the morning's discussion.
"We already are losing out to other countries that are more willing and have less onerous pathways to allow entrepreneurs into their country," Heck said, noting immigrants were more likely than native-born residents to start their own businesses.
"If we want to capture a share of that industry, then we need to be a little more welcoming than we are. There was the one example of the CEO of VoiceBunny, who invested $20,000 to try and get somebody here on an H1-B visa, and it got denied. That was money he'll never recoup," Heck said.
Heck said he was working with other representatives on a House version of the DREAM Act, previously failed legislation that offers legal status to immigrants who arrived in the United States at a young age and had served in the military or gone to college. Heck wants to require applicants to earn either a two- or four-year degree, not just have attended college. Those receiving trade certificates, such as completed training in auto mechanics, also would qualify.
Heck previously voted to defund Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama administration program that targeted the same demographic of immigrants. The program, Heck said, was an overreach of executive power. His vote, he said, did not reflect his opinion of the DREAM Act in general.
Heck knows the toughest battle of immigration reform will be over any proposal that offers eventual citizenship to people in the country illegally. Recent rhetoric from his fellow congressman, Steve King, R-Iowa, that labeled immigrants who cross the border illegally as predominantly drug mules, is counterproductive and "inflammatory," Heck said.
Reynaldo Robledo's parents came from Mexico, and, after working several jobs, started their restaurant franchise in 1964 in San Diego. Robledo shared a sentiment with panelist Torrenegra, arguing the most important aspect of reform is to allow immigrants residing here illegally the opportunity to work and participate in society.
"I don't think we need to rush to make people here illegally citizens," Robledo said. "They want to be able to live here and work, but not everybody wants to be a citizen."
Heck found consensus on the SXSW panel and at Roberto's, but in the beginning of September when the congressional recess ends, he will have to return to the House, where harmony is more elusive.
"The primary sticky issue is the pathway to earned citizenship, or legalization or documentation or whatever it may be," Heck said. "That is where, certainly in the House, we are having the most difficulty in reaching consensus. That last piece that has to be addressed is what is going to be done with those in undocumented status, and there isn't unanimity in the House."