Washington has taken its first steps on the road to comprehensive immigration reform, and proposals by the president and Senate leaders are in the right direction, says Rep. Juan Vargas, who represents Imperial Beach.
But the first-term Democrat took aim at Republicans and others who called pathway to citizenship proposals an issue that could derail immigration reform talks.
“When did amnesty become a dirty word?” Vargas asked Friday. “That’s what I want know. Ronald Reagan used it. When did amnesty become a dirty word?”
The road may get bumpy when amnesty is discussed, he said, but he believes an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States should receive citizenship.
“The issue that’s going to be the hold up unfortunately is going to be the issue of citizenship and how do we get there,” he said after speaking at an economic forum last week.
“We have to get there. We have to figure it out. Hopefully there’s a way to compromise where that doesn’t clog everything up. But I think the positive thing is no one’s talking about just a few people. We’re talking about everybody, how to fix the whole thing.”
Vargas –who along with La Jolla Rep. Scott Peters, are new to Congress – addressed the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Mexico Business Center last Friday and talked about a range of topics including Benghazi, immigration and the border’s economy.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Vargas is San Diego’s first Latino member of Congress and on Election Day called immigration reform a priority of his first term of office.
He now represents the 51st district, which includes Imperial Beach, parts of South San Diego and the Imperial Valley and spans the entire California-Mexico border.
“I don’t see the difference between a child that grows up on one side of the Mexican border and comes here,” Vargas told the crowd of about 30 people. “We’re all made in God’s image, whether it’s my daughter or a child that was born in China or Tijuana or whatever and I’m very anxious for our laws to reflect that soon.”
Vargas was sworn into office Jan. 3 and joked that his first month in Congress has felt more like a year.
One of the better known moments of his first month in Congress was questioning then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the terrorist attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya as a member of the House Committee of Foreign Affairs.
Typically when something goes wrong in foreign affairs a committee is formed, the committee’s findings are classified and politicians try to hide until the issue blows over.
“You know that something went wrong, but the thing kind of dies down and you move on to the next thing,” he said. “Hillary Clinton didn’t do that.”
In Vargas’ analysis of classified and unclassified information, though some members of the State Department resigned in the wake of Benghazi, Clinton and most State Department management did not make many mistakes.
“The ambassador died as well as three other people. A very courageous man he was as well as the three other people, but you didn’t see a lot of errors being made at the level of department heads and certainly not at her level,” he said.
While speaking to the Mexico Business Center, Vargas focused most of his time and attention on how to improve the border’s economy.
America is still going through a “jobless recovery,” he said, but as manufacturing jobs that used to go to China begin to come to Mexico, America’s economy will benefit. A strong Mexican economy means a strong American economy, he said.
“I think everyone understands that more manufacturing that happens in Mexico that actually spills over the border and spills into the United States quite well,” he said.
A better infrastructure is needed to accommodate more business along the border, and Mexico and the United States need to work together, he said.
“Their infrastructure problems will become our infrastructure problems also and we really are acting as a region,” he said.
Phase I of the San Ysidro Port of Entry expansion is already underway, but Congress still needs to allocate funds for Phases II and III. Vargas said he hopes to get beyond partisan politics and work with members of Congress from Texas and anyone else willing to listen to improve border infrastructure.
“Unfortunately Arizona is not as active right now as it could be and it should be, but certainly Texas and California, we’re going to work together to try and get those infrastructure monies,” he said.
“I think everyone understands for manufacturing to work in the United States you have to have a partner in Mexico. Let’s work together, but you can’t have that if you don’t build up the infrastructure along the border. It just won’t work.”
Changing perception about drug cartel violence is also beneficial to the region, he said.
“I’ll be frank about this, being someone who has represented the border for a long time, everyone always asks about the violence,” he said. “Violence in Mexico, a lawless country, the narco traffickers are running around killing. Well hell, if you’re afraid of violence don’t go to Chicago. Don’t go to Detroit. I mean it’s much more dangerous there than it is along the border, truth be told. And I think people are starting to understand that.”
Mexico has to focus on more than drug trafficking and violence as well, he said.
“That’s been part of Mexico’s fault too. In a sense, they’ve had such a focus on the narco traffickers and they had such a focus on the deaths. Focus on the positive things. Great positive things are happening in Mexico. Focus on those too, not just the other part,” Vargas said.
One member of the audience asked Vargas about the possibility of dropping vehicle registration or visible stickers for SENTRI pass users and expressed her concern that drug smugglers target SENTRI pass users who frequently travel to the United States.
“Virtually everyone who crosses the border crosses the border legally,” Vargas said. “There are some drug issues but they’re minor compared to the problems that we have because of the border waits so that sounds like something I’d be very interested in helping champion.”
Other members of the audience peppered Vargas with questions about how to make crossing the border easier.
Vargas called public-private partnerships like the kind being proposed in Calexico a creative solution he supports as long as their is capital and public workers aren’t villanized in the process.
“I don’t do that because we give them a mission. We tell them what to do and we often times underfund it and then we get pissed off. That’s not right,” he said.
Vargas also supported the idea of a SENTRI Ambassador program for business leaders from places like Korea or Germany so long waits in lines to enter the United States don’t discourage trips to Mexico.
When asked about working with Republicans from the California delegation, the congressman made a point to say he does not dislike big business.
“I think it’s the distribution sometimes of the wealth that’s created that pisses me off but it’s not the creation of the wealth,” he said. “I just believe in higher taxes. I don’t think that businesses creating opportunities is a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing. It’s just how ultimately the profits get spread around when the poor get very little and the guys at the top get everything.”
The business center’s monthly forum was held at the Sempra Energy building at 101 Ash St. in downtown San Diego.