There’s a major disconnect in how Republicans think about immigration reform

Immigration doesn't seem like such a black-and-white issue when it affects lawmakers.

CREDIT: Pixabay
CREDIT: Pixabay

In a heartfelt piece arguing for immigration reform, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a harsh critic of President Donald Trump’s policies, wrote about his experiences with Manuel Chaidez, a farmworker who worked on his family’s farm for 24 years. The column comes as the Trump administration has proposed to cut legal immigration by 50 percent, a disastrous policy plan that would grant entry only to high-skilled workers into the country.

Flake’s New York Times opinion piece published Friday and is a schmaltzy ode of sorts highlighting the utility of low-skilled agricultural workers–venerated the best qualities seen in immigrants. Chaidez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, never quit the hard labor despite Flake’s own high school buddies “wash[ing] out after a day or two.” Chaidez was so close to the family that he gave out invaluable relationship advice.

“Without such work there is no ranch,” Flake wrote. “Without ranches, my town and towns like it falter. And so in my estimation, Manuel is just about the highest-value immigrant possible, and if we forget that, then we forget something elemental about America.”

Flake also curiously noted that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency deported Chaidez several times to Mexico. “Each time, he made his way back,” Flake said, without explaining why his family failed to sponsor Chaidez to ease the multiple displacements. An email to Flake’s office was sent Friday morning on this matter.

The larger picture is that this country is filled with Manuel Chaidezes. Chaidez was, in part, a crucial reason why Flake is a unicorn among Republican lawmakers when it comes to immigration policy. The Republican senator may have aligned with President Donald Trump’s position 93.5 percent of the time since inauguration, but Flake has been an outspoken supporter of comprehensive immigration reform when other Republican lawmakers have not been so willing.

Flake’s commitment to immigration reform didn’t happen in a vacuum. His personal interaction to Chaidez molded his views. That was also the case with former presidential candidate Jeb Bush, whose maid Maria Magdalena Romero was deported in 1991. “It was a difficult time for all of us, but most of all for Maria,” he told the Washington Post in 2013.

Outside of Flake and Bush (who’s no longer in office), there is strong Republican backing for the Trump administration’s indiscriminate pursuit of undocumented immigrants, regardless of their positive equities in this country or the lack of a criminal record. But some of those very same Republicans who want to shut the door on immigrants are also sponsoring immigration bills that are compassionate in nature.

In the current 115th Congress, five Republicans have supported private immigration bills to provide relief, or permanent residence status for certain foreign nationals on compassionate grounds. This took place most recently eight days after Trump tweeted support for a British family who did not want to take their son Charlie Gard off life support, as requested by UK doctors. Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Ann Wagner (R-MO), and Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) separately introduced a bill on July 11 to allow the Gard family into the United States so that they could seek an experimental treatment in New York. Gard died on July 28 after his parents gave up the fight against the UK hospital.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) stands for policies unkind towards so-called DREAMers brought to the country as youths and Central American women and children fleeing violence. But on July 19, he introduced a private immigration bill to grant a green card to Liu Xia, the wife of the late Chinese Nobel winner Liu Xiao Bo. Liu Xia, who was has been under house arrest since 2010, has been missing since her husband’s burial at sea on July 13.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) — who once said that granting temporary immigration relief to DREAMers was “an insult to the rule of law” — has repeatedly sponsored a private immigration bill to grant permanent residence status for a family through a case inherited from his predecessor and father, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in May. As ThinkProgress reporter Josh Israel previously reported, the case concerns “a Colombian family of four who were denied asylum despite their claims that they were being extorted by guerrillas who threatened to kidnap the young son.”

Private immigration bills have long been a bipartisan way for lawmakers to push for deferred removals from the country on behalf of individual people in dire circumstances. But if compassion is the currency on which lawmakers get to choose who lives in the country and who could die after deportation to their home countries, then it could be argued that there are other immigrants worthy of the sentiment. One Mexican man, a father of three, jumped to his death after ICE deported him in February. In May, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) condemned the deportation of an asylum-seeking Honduran mother and her five-year-old child who were “running from death” away from gangs who would target them “the moment they land in Honduras.”

All that could be a moot point anyway. Private bills no longer carry the same weight under the Trump administration. When lawmakers introduce private bills, ICE has in the past granted a stay of removal until Congress “either took action on the bill or adjourned without taking action ont he bill and the grace period expired,” according to a May 2017 letter to congressional members from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency acting director Thomas Homan. In that letter, Homan wrote that his agency would no longer delay the deportation of people with pending private bills.

Josh Israel contributed to the research for this article.