Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2017

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Q+A: Kihuen discusses his immigration story, DACA and Yucca Mountain

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David Becker/Las Vegas News Bureau

Congressman Ruben Kihuen speaks during the official El Grito ceremony kicking off the the Mexican Independence Day festivities at The Forum Shops at Caesars Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, in Las Vegas.

Congress is heading into the end of the year with a full slate of priorities, from nuclear waste to tax reform, and Nevada’s Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen says immigration should be on that list.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is phasing out, and while President Donald Trump seems to be working with Democrats to find a solution, it’s unclear whether his push for a border wall will block a deal on DACA.

Meanwhile, this fall, the House is expected to take up a nuclear waste reform bill tied to the long-proposed Yucca Mountain repository. Tax reform talks are also heating up, with some lawmakers pushing for action before the year ends, and health care is again at the forefront as Republicans work to pass a bill before Sept. 31, when budget rules require more votes than the bill is likely to receive.

Kihuen, who became a citizen in 2004 and whose district includes Nye County where Yucca Mountain is located, spoke with the Sun about DACA, the Dream Act, Yucca Mountain, health care and bipartisanship in Congress.

How did your family immigrate to the U.S.?

I was born in Mexico, in Guadalajara. We came here with visas, so we actually didn’t come here undocumented. Like 40 percent of undocumented immigrants in this country, we overstayed our visa, but back then there was a way to get legal resident status. And we did, thanks to Ronald Reagan’s immigration reform. We waited the five years you have to wait as a green card holder, and then we became citizens.

I hear all the time, ‘Why aren’t people just doing it the right way. My ancestors did it the right way.’ Well, yeah, back when the system used to work. Today, it doesn’t work that way. My family didn’t make the sacrifice to the extent that other people did, where they actually risked their lives crossing the Rio Grande and the desert with no water. Right now, if you want to do it the right way, it’s going to take you over 20, 25 years.

What should immigration reform look like?

Border protection, passing a background check, learning English, standing in the back of the line and paying any back taxes and a fee ― all of that, plus a path to citizenship. If you really want to fix the system, you pass an immigration reform that will help also the parents, and the relatives who are not gang members, who are not criminals, give them an opportunity to become full citizens. But it’s got to be an earned path to citizenship. It can’t just be amnesty.

Are there any similarities between the immigration reform discussion now and the one that took place under Reagan in the ’80s?

It’s ironic that I’m a Democratic congressman today who became a U.S. citizen thanks to a Republican president. Ronald Reagan signed that bill into law. There were even many Republicans in the House and the Senate back then who championed and supported this. Right now we have Republicans who have championed this. It’s just a matter of coming together, both Republicans and Democrats, and making it happen.

What do you think about potentially tying border wall funding to relief for DACA participants?

Our kids’ future should not be used as a bargaining chip for anything. These kids are going to our schools, they are our teachers, our doctors, our lawyers, politicians, and service members. They are the best that the immigrant community has to offer and they don’t deserve to be used as bargaining chips for anything. If the president wants to talk about border protection or the wall, then let’s talk about that, but we should not be using our kids as a bargaining chip.

Would you support border wall funding if it meant the Dream Act were to be brought up for a vote?

We have our leadership who are discussing this issue. We already had a bill in 2013 that included border protection, that included E-Verify and included a background check. The 2013 “gang of eight” bill was Jeff Flake, Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham, John McCain and then there were four Democrats. It passed in the Senate with 60-plus votes, and unfortunately they didn’t bring it up for a vote in the House when they knew that the votes were there. If we bring up that same bill from 2013, the votes are there to pass it.

DACA and even the Dream Act, to some extent, are Band-Aids on a broken leg. If we want to fix the broken immigration system, let’s pass immigration reform. The urgency right now is to pass the Dream Act to give reassurance and protection to these 800,000 (DACA participants). This is a common-sense bill, but it’s caught up in politics. It still doesn’t solve the immigration problem that we have in this country. I believe that the immigration reform bill would.

Is it a relief that Trump met with Democratic leaders to discuss immigration policy?

That’s what we should have done from the start. It’s unfortunate that it took nine months of this Congress to finally have the president and the Democratic leadership sit down and negotiate. I think the president’s starting to realize that he needs Democrats to get anything done in this country, and that’s how it should work. Democrats and Republicans should work together.

With regard to Yucca Mountain, what kind of outreach have you done in Nye County and the other rural areas that support resuming the licensing process?

I actually visited Yucca Mountain. I toured the place with local officials. It reassured me that first of all, the place is dead. That place is going to take a lot of money to resurrect.

The majority of Nevadans don’t want nuclear waste in their backyard. The majority of Nevadans are not even willing to negotiate. It’s dangerous.

What is being done ahead of the expected passage this fall of Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus’ Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, which would help push the Yucca Mountain project forward?

I testified in committee. I have talked to committee members and my colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, and explained to them why Nevada doesn’t want it. And it’s not just because we don’t want that trash in our backyard. It’s literally because of economic reasons and safety reasons.

There is bipartisan support in Congress to move the bill forward, but there is also bipartisan support within Nevada to keep the nuclear waste out of here. We’re still going to fight in the courts.

We have many arguments to make here. The funding, the safety. You see a lot of seismic activity here and it’s not the safest place to store this nuclear waste. Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt and the entire Democratic delegation in the House, we’re ready to fight this.

How likely is it that Congress appropriates funding to restart the project?

We have a Republican-led House and Senate and presidency with fiscally conservative Republicans cutting and slashing budgets all across. I want to see where they’re going to get $120 million for the initial seed money.

I think it’s going to come down to once we start having the budget negotiations at the end of the year to see where they’re going to find the funding for it.

What can people expect from Congress as we head into 2018?

President Trump came in and his first order of business was trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. Democrats spent eight months defending and protecting the Affordable Care Act and trying to fix it, because it’s not perfect.

We should not be spending time on Yucca Mountain. It’s a waste of money. We should not be spending time on trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act again. That’s a waste of time, not to mention you’re taking away from 32 million Americans, including 210,000 here in Nevada. We should not be spending time trying to slash programs that are really working.

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