Juan Espinoza, a college educated, legal immigrant from Peru, probably didn’t expect to be the reason that a Tea Party-backed congressman is now open to a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. Up until their meeting in early August, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) remained silent on a path to legalization or citizenship for undocumented immigrants. During an interview with the Miami Herald on Friday and two weeks removed from his meeting with Espinoza, the congressman came out in support of legalization for young undocumented immigrants.
Southerland stated that American-grown graduates like Espinoza, should be allowed to stay and succeed, including those who are undocumented. He emphasized the need to pass border security legislation first in the House and called immigration reform a “moral issue.” He recalled Espinoza’s success story as his reason for supporting legal status, saying:
[Espinoza is] educated and he’s smart. We have to make sure that a young person like that has a way. This is his home. We have to make sure that he has a way to be legitimized as a citizen…If there’s going to be a chance to create a legal path, there has to be a recognition of the wrong done. But I believe in reconciliation.
Southerland’s latest statement is the most affirmative position that he has given on a citizenship pathway, though it is not guaranteed that he is open to providing citizenship to all undocumented immigrants– he stated that something needed to be done with young immigrants, but withheld his opinions about others. He opposes the approved Senate immigration bill which provides a pathway to citizenship as “quite flawed.”
And despite these recent remarks, Southerland voted to block funding for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a presidential initiative that prevents the deportations of undocumented youths who were brought to the country by their parents. Espinoza is not undocumented, but his success story is mirrored by the many undocumented immigrants who qualify for the DACA program.
Still, having a face to face interaction with immigrants has changed the minds of other immigration-reform opponents. Donald Trump recently met with seven immigrants, some of whom are undocumented, and told them that they “convinced” him on immigration reform. Trump previously advocated a European-only immigration approach. Former Utah legislature member Stephen Sandstrom, who touted anti-immigration laws, had a drastic change of heart after his meeting with an undocumented immigrant.