House Subcommittee On Immigration & Citizenship

Who’s Who in the Immigration Debate: Profiles of the Legislators Constructing U.S. Immigration Policy

The gridlock in Congress seems to deepen each year. Political debates between the two major parties exacerbate tensions, legislative output remains stagnant, and a prevailing sense of pessimism is felt by legislators and constituents alike. These sentiments heighten when we look at the ostensible lack of progress in our nation’s immigration policy. A deeper glimpse into the lives of the people that shape immigration policy at the federal level, however, offers a ray of hope for immigrant advocates in the United States. 

The House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee includes the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. The 15 members of this subcommittee — nine Democrats and six Republicans — directly deal with legislation involving immigration reform, including naturalization, border security, admission of refugees, international laws and agreements, etc. Although these representatives are ultimately assigned to the committee by their respective parties, the committee assignments are based on the expressed preferences of each legislator.

These 15 members, then, have chosen to assume this crucial role in our nation’s immigration debate, whether due to personal interests and/or the interests of their district. An exploration of these congressmen and women’s lived experiences reveals a telling story about the state of immigration policy in the United States today. 

Zoe Lofgren (CA-19) serves as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. She has been a member of the House of Representatives for 25 years. Before entering electoral politics, however, Rep. Lofgren practiced and taught immigration law in her home state of California. Her professional experience in the field of immigration law has also been supplemented by her personal connection to immigration, as Rep. Logren is the proud granddaughter of immigrants from Sweden.

As the chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, Lofgren has voted to provide humanitarian assistance for migrants in CBP custody, combat the root causes of the refugee crisis in Central America, and protect refugees and asylum seekers in the Western Hemisphere. She also led the passage of the DREAM Act in the House of Representatives in 2019, which would prevent undocumented immigrants that were brought to the U.S. as children from being deported.

In a speech on the House floor the day of this historic vote, Rep. Lofgren declared, “DREAMers are Americans. All they lack is the paper to prove it. They live in every one of our fifty states. Their families hail from every region of the world. Their contributions are felt all across the landscape of this country.” 

 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) stands for arrest during a Capitol Hill protest in opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policies. | Photo Courtesy: Reuters

 

This sentiment is shared by the Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), a life-long immigration activist. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 2016 and became the first South Asian American woman to serve in the House. Rep. Jayapal intimately understands the complex difficulties of immigrants’ lives, as she immigrated to the U.S. herself at the age of 16.

Before she ran for elected office, Rep. Jayapal spent 12 years as the Executive Director of OneAmerica, an immigration advocacy organization that she founded in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Rep. Jayapal has continued her impassioned advocacy for immigrant groups within the halls of Congress, where she has quickly emerged as a leader on immigration reform.

She has authored landmark legislation to expand legal immigration to the U.S., prevent family separation at the southern border, and eliminate the mandatory detention of migrants. 

 In 2018, Jayapal also participated in the Women Disobey sit-in on Capitol Hill to protest the Trump administration’s inhumane and cruel zero-tolerance policy towards undocumented immigration. Although her involvement in the protest led to her arrest, she stated that she was “proud to have been arrested” and that she “refuses to let this president and this administration do what they are doing to children, to parents, [and] to asylum seekers.” 

As a third-generation El Pasoan, Veronica Escobar (TX-16) has witnessed the realities of the border region firsthand. In interviews with MSNBC and NBC News, Rep. Escobar described her hometown as “one of the greatest communities in all of America. The border is such a magical, complex place.” Growing up, Rep. Escobar could easily visit El Paso’s sister city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico with just a short walk across a bridge. She saw the border as “this place where two worlds are juxtaposed,” but still represent “symbols of unity and togetherness.” 

Rep. Escobar’s appreciation for the importance of immigration soon launched her career into politics. When El Paso became the target of Customs and Border Patrol officials in the late ‘90s and discussions about the construction of a border wall arose, Rep. Escobar began to volunteer with the Border Rights Coalition, a local non-profit organization dedicated to immigration reform and the protection of human rights.

She volunteered for different political campaigns, seeked local public offices, and — two decades later — became the first of two Latinas from Texas to serve in Congress. Rep. Escobar has become a national leader on immigration. She understands that lawmakers must directly witness the devastating realities at the border in order to legislate effectively and, therefore, has led several congressional delegations to visit migrant shelters, processing facilities, immigration advocates, etc. at the border. 

The Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship also represents the voices of legislators who claim heritage in different regions around the world. Joe Neguse (CO-02) is the son of refugees from Eritrea, a small country in East Africa. His family’s immigration story has been instrumental in Rep. Neguse’s motivation to give back to his community through public service; after all, he stated during his 2018 congressional campaign that, “as the son of immigrants to this country who were given a shot at the American dream, I decided to run for office because that dream is under assault now as never before.”

Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) is the granddaughter of immigrants from Jamaica. During a debate on the House floor, Rep. Lee once reminisced about her childhood in Queens, New York: “I remember school trips of my going to the Statue of Liberty, and I am reminded of that extending arm that said it welcomes those who are worn and those who are forlorn.” Rep. Lee’s appreciation for her grandparents’ struggles and sacrifices has made her an outspoken proponent of comprehensive immigration reform during her eleven terms in the House of Representatives, where she has focused particularly on increasing immigration from historically underrepresented parts of the world e.g. the Caribbean and Africa.

The remaining seven Democratic members of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship offer diverse perspectives and lived experiences to contribute to their efforts towards mending this nation’s broken immigration system. J. Luis Correa (CA-46) has close ties to the large Latinx immigrant community in his Southern California district, where he has lived for most of his life. During the ICE raids of 2017, Rep. Correa demanded details about enforcement activities from then-Acting Director Thomas Homan in order to mitigate the fear and uncertainty faced by his constituents, 67% of whom identify as Hispanic.

Sylvia R. Garcia (TX-29) similarly represents an overwhelmingly Latinx congressional district, as about 77% of her district’s population identifies as Hispanic. She became the first Latina congresswomen to represent this district after her election to the House of Representatives in 2018. Before she assumed elected office, however, Rep. Garcia worked as a social worker and legal aid lawyer to protect vulnerable populations in her community, including immigrant families.

This experience has pushed her to sponsor several pieces of legislation that uphold immigrant rights and, as she stated at a Houston rally in support of immigrant women and girls, “a humane immigration process that does not make it harder on [immigrants] or dehumanizes them for having the courage to seek the American dream.” 

 

Rep. Veronica Escobar (TX-16) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (MS-2) discuss the southern border with a Customs and Border Patrol officer in El Paso. | Photo Courtesy: NBC News

 

As a third-generation El Pasoan, Veronica Escobar (TX-16) has witnessed the realities of the border region firsthand. In interviews with MSNBC and NBC News, Rep. Escobar described her hometown as “one of the greatest communities in all of America. The border is such a magical, complex place.” Growing up, Rep. Escobar could easily visit El Paso’s sister city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico with just a short walk across a bridge. She saw the border as “this place where two worlds are juxtaposed,” but still represent “symbols of unity and togetherness.” 

Rep. Escobar’s appreciation for the importance of immigration soon launched her career into politics. When El Paso became the target of Customs and Border Patrol officials in the late ‘90s and discussions about the construction of a border wall arose, Rep. Escobar began to volunteer with the Border Rights Coalition, a local non-profit organization dedicated to immigration reform and the protection of human rights.

She volunteered for different political campaigns, seeked local public offices, and — two decades later — became the first of two Latinas from Texas to serve in Congress. Rep. Escobar has become a national leader on immigration. She understands that lawmakers must directly witness the devastating realities at the border in order to legislate effectively and, therefore, has led several congressional delegations to visit migrant shelters, processing facilities, immigration advocates, etc. at the border. 

The Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship also represents the voices of legislators who claim heritage in different regions around the world. Joe Neguse (CO-02) is the son of refugees from Eritrea, a small country in East Africa. His family’s immigration story has been instrumental in Rep. Neguse’s motivation to give back to his community through public service; after all, he stated during his 2018 congressional campaign that, “as the son of immigrants to this country who were given a shot at the American dream, I decided to run for office because that dream is under assault now as never before.” Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) is the granddaughter of immigrants from Jamaica.

During a debate on the House floor, Rep. Lee once reminisced about her childhood in Queens, New York: “I remember school trips of my going to the Statue of Liberty, and I am reminded of that extending arm that said it welcomes those who are worn and those who are forlorn.” Rep. Lee’s appreciation for her grandparents’ struggles and sacrifices has made her an outspoken proponent of comprehensive immigration reform during her eleven terms in the House of Representatives, where she has focused particularly on increasing immigration from historically underrepresented parts of the world e.g. the Caribbean and Africa.

 

From left to right, Rep. Donna Shalala (Fl-27), Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (FL-26), and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) call for the closure of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for unaccompanied migrant children. | Photo Courtesy: Caribbean National Weekly.

 

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (FL-26) directly understands the struggles of immigrant life, as she immigrated with her family to the U.S. from Ecuador as a young girl. Her election to the House of Representatives made her the first South American immigrant member of Congress. In Congress, Rep. Mucarsel-Powell has focused on the underlying problems in Central and South American countries that drive people to immigrate to the U.S.

She has pushed her colleagues to directly address these problems through diplomacy and humanitarian aid. Rep. Mucarsel-Powell has also voiced her strong opposition to President Trump’s offensive attacks on immigrants. “[The president] loves to talk about us as criminals and people that commit crimes, and it’s just not true. Here I am, a member of Congress and an immigrant,” she said in an interview with CNN. “I am an immigrant, and how dare you call us criminals.” 

The remaining Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship is Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05). Before running for public office, Rep. Scanlon worked as a national pro bono counsel at a Philadelphia law firm to help immigrants and asylum seekers. During her time in Congress, she has been a part of a congressional delegation that visited El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to witness and learn about the living conditions in these Central American countries.

“It was a humanitarian crisis,” Rep. Scanlon said in an interview with the Daily Times, “and [the Trump administration] exacerbated the humanitarian crisis to try to get more money for a wall.” These direct interactions with migrant communities have ultimately strengthened Rep. Scanlon’s commitment to repairing our broken immigration system. 

The Democratic legislators on this subcommittee, then, represent a wide array of experiences that offer diverse perspectives on how to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. They represent different ethnicities, racial groups, immigration statuses, etc., but they all share a passion for immigration advocacy and a dedication to treating these nation’s immigrants with dignity and respect. The Republican members of this subcommittee, however, hold utterly opposing views on immigration.

Ken Buck (CO-04) serves as the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. Before entering electoral politics, Rep. Buck was the District Attorney in Colorado’s Weld County. As the DA, he orchestrated an ICE raid on the JBS Swift Greeley Beef Plant, the largest employer in the city of Greeley, Colorado, in 2006; this raid became the largest workplace ICE raid in U.S. history, resulting in the arrest of 265 Latinx workers and dozens of deportations.

In 2008, Rep. Buck conducted a raid of a tax office for Latinx immigrants. He seized confidential tax returns and arrested several alleged undocumented immigrants, an act that the Colorado Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional. His hardline stance on immigration is best described through his own quote to The Denver Post: “I don’t owe people who are here illegally anything.”

 

President Donald Trump and Rep. Debbie Lesko (AZ-08), third from right, tour the border wall in Arizona. | Photo Courtesy: Westport News.

 

Since being elected to the House of Representatives in 2016, Andy Biggs (AZ-05) has become an ardent supporter of Trump’s immigration policies in Congress. He has introduced several anti-immigrant bills in the House, such as the Fund and Complete the Border Wall Act that provides funding for building a wall on the nation’s southern border and deducts foreign aid to Mexico for every undocumented immigrant that is apprehended trying to cross the border.

Before his election to the House, Biggs served in the Arizona Senate since 2010. As a state senator, he supported the infamous Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which requires law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of an individual that they have “reasonable suspicion” to be undocumented.

This bill was also supported in Arizona’s state legislature by another member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, Debbie Lesko (AZ-08). Rep. Lesko has introduced several pieces of legislation in the House to address the border crisis; one bill increases the number of detention beds, while another increases the credible fear standard in order to limit asylum seekers or, as Rep. Lesko calls them, the “thousands and thousands of people coming from Central America being attracted to our country and having cartels encourage them.” 

Like Rep. Biggs and Lesko, Tom McClintock (CA-04) also staunchly embraces Trump’s hardline stance on immigration,. During a town hall in his California district, Doris Romero, a DACA recipient whose parents brought her to the U.S. from El Salvador when she was five years old, asked Rep. McClintock about legal pathways she could pursue to become a U.S. citizen.

He suggested that, “She should obey our immigration laws, return to her own country, and apply for admission the way millions of legal immigrants have done for generations.” Romero burst into her tears after hearing his response. All she wanted was for Rep. McClintock to be her voice in Congress. After all, for her, “her own country” is the United States. 

This steadfast opposition to amnesty for undocumented immigrants is shared by Kelly Armstrong (ND-00). He voted against the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which would grant amnesty to certain undocumented immigrants that entered the U.S. as children. He also voted against the Heroes Act of 2020, which would protect undocumented immigrants currently working in essential fields from deportation during the coronavirus pandemic. W. Gregory Steube (FL-17), the last member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, voted against these two bills as well.

Within his first few months in Congress, Rep. Steube also introduced the Break the Chain Act, a bill that would limit family-sponsored immigration by narrowing the definition of who qualifies as an immediate relative to a U.S. citizen. This bill would disproportionately affect U.S. citizens with family members from Mexico, China, India, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines, the most frequent sponsors of family-based green cards, and ultimately transform the diversity of immigrants entering the United States. 

The severe polarization of the two main political parties in the U.S. is undoubtedly embodied in the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. The Democratic members attempt to pull the immigration debate in one direction, while the Republican members steadfastly maintain their grip on this fragile rope and pull in the complete opposite direction.

The vastly different stances of the Democratic and Republican representatives in this subcommittee seem to be a direct product of their different lived experiences. The Republican legislators have no direct connection to immigration. As white men and women, they enjoy an immense amount of privilege that most racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. will never experience during their lifetimes. For them, immigration is simply another policy issue.

The Democratic legislators, on the other hand, hail from a family of immigrants and/or have worked closely with immigrant communities. For them, immigration is not simply another policy issue. It is a personal issue, a human issue. They work tirelessly to ensure that immigrants in the U.S. receive the basic respect that they deserve. As activists, we must support these legislators in their impassioned fight for progressive change in our immigration system.

 

Featured Image Credits: Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans





 

Aditi Mittal | Georgetown University
Aditi is a rising junior at Georgetown University. As an Economics major with minors in Government and Justice & Peace Studies, she has always been interested in the economic and political determinants of global migration. Aditi has participated in and led a university-sponsored immersion program to Tucson, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico that has allowed her to directly explore the complexities of Latinx migration and understand the realities of immigrant life at the United States’ southern border. This experience has driven her passion to advocate for the migrant justice movement and support efforts that provide humanitarian assistance to migrants. Aditi hopes that her work as an Immigration Writer will amplify the voices of immigrants who are often neglected in national conversations and, ultimately, create actionable change.