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Mayors Of Border Cities Watching Immigration Debate Closely


The fate of this round of immigration reform will be decided by lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But the effects will be felt in cities and towns across all 50 states, especially those on the U.S.-Mexico border; which is why we reached out to the mayors of two cities in Texas.

John Cook is the mayor of El Paso, Texas. It is the biggest U.S. city on the border. And Raul Salinas is the mayor of Laredo, Texas. His city is the largest transit hub for goods going between Mexico and the U.S.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

MAYOR JOHN COOK: Oh, you're quite welcome, Rachel.

MAYOR RAUL SALINAS: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: You both have come out in favor of some kind of immigration reform. And I want to get to the specifics in a moment of how you see that taking shape. But I want to start by asking each of you why changes are needed in the first place. I'll start with Mayor Cook.

COOK: Well, the reality is, is that when you have a need to import about a half a million workers into the country every year and you have an immigration system that only allows a fraction of those people to come in - and do the work that Americans quite frankly don't want to do - then you're inviting the rest of them to come in the illegally.

MARTIN: And do you see this happening in El Paso? There are a lot of laborers going back and forth?

COOK: Right now, what this situation is - and this is probably one of the big bones of contention that you're going to see with the of immigration reform efforts that are there - we've done a lot to make sure that people are channeled through the legal ports of entry, rather than coming through in between the ports.

So, in my humble opinion, our borders are currently more secure than they have ever, ever been.

MARTIN: Mayor Salinas, do you agree?

SALINAS: I certainly agree. You know, I'm a former FBI agent, served for 27 years. I understand security. We're very, very, very safe. Absolutely, the system is broken. It needs to be fixed. You need to get the 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and into the system.

MARTIN: If you don't mind me just interjecting there. Both President Obama plan and the Senate bipartisan plan, both require that the border, quote, "be secured," before anything else can happen, before any other reforms can happen. So clearly there is this perception - in the White House and on Capitol Hill - that the border isn't secured. So...

COOK: I would disagree with that, and here's why. President Obama is trying to pacify the Republicans that would say that the border is not secure right now. But if border security is the very first step that has to happen, if it's a trigger that triggers a comprehensive immigration reform, then somebody's going to have to define it.

Do you define it by the number of people that are caught trying to cross the border? If you're catching them then the border is secure.

SALINAS: Well, Mayor Cook, I think that one thing that needs to be pointed out that illegal immigration has gone down. The enforcement along the border, the surveillance along the border has been very effective. I think that this is a politically-motivated issue. I mean, obviously. But, you know, the reality is that no longer can 11 or 12 million people live in the shadows. And we have people that behaved themselves and contribute to the American dream. What isn't some of the legislators don't understand?

MARTIN: Both President Obama's plan for immigration reform and the bipartisan Senate bill, both of these plans call for illegal immigrants to, quote, "move to the back of the line," in order to get legal citizenship.

Mayor Cook, let's start with you. You have raised some concerns about this. What are they?

COOK: Well, you have these supposedly 11 million people who are currently gainfully employed, so they're supposed to stop working and wait an indefinite period of time until they can move up to the front of the line? In my humble opinion, that's not going to happen.

MARTIN: Mayor Salinas.

SALINAS: Well, you know, I agree. You know, a lot is going to be done when the Senate looks at this legislation. But, like the mayor said, going to the back of the line, how long is the line going to be? Is it going to be you're going to have to wait for 20 years, 30 years?

MARTIN: But this is a problem. You acknowledge this is an issue. They are people in Mexico, who've been dotting their Is and crossing the Ts and doing everything right.

COOK: Well, yeah. But part of that meeting is going to solve itself. They're talking about increasing the number of visas that people can get. They're talking about student visas. They're talking about green cards and guest worker programs. And all these conversations before were never held. It was just, well, we need to punish people who came into the country illegally.

MARTIN: Mayor Salinas, do you have faith that any of this will transpire? I imagine you've heard some of this over the years.

SALINAS: Well, I am more optimistic than ever. And our last meeting with the Conference of Mayors, speaking to my colleagues, my Republican colleagues, a lot of them came to me and whispered in my ear: We get it.

MARTIN: But you mentioned that it's a whisper in your ear. So it's still something people are reticent about.

SALINAS: Well, yeah. I say think that, you know, I think the mayors are coming out a little more openly. But and when I say he whisper, obviously, because we are in meetings, etcetera. But I think you're going to see a stronger bipartisan support.

MARTIN: A last question. You've both talked about the challenges from your perspective, in your individual communities - these are border towns, obviously. How do you make the case to Americans who don't live on the border that there needs to be comprehensive immigration reform?

COOK: Well, the way I would describe that to them is: do you know how many undocumented workers are living in your community? When they come across the border in a border community, like El Paso or Laredo or San Diego, they don't stay there. They move on. I would say that every community across the United States has been impacted by undocumented workers in a broken immigration system.

MARTIN: Mayor Salinas.

SALINAS: Well, the 11 million people that are here have been good citizens, have been contributing, they have been doing a good job. All they want is the American dream. And show them the statistics. Show them that these folks have been paying to taxes but are getting no benefits. If they can help make America stronger, a land of immigrants, then let's give them an opportunity. Why not? They've been here and they're contributing to strengthening America. And that's what it's about.

MARTIN: Mayor Raul Salinas of Laredo, Texas and Mayor John Cook of El Paso, Texas, thanks to both of you for talking with us.

SALINAS: Thank you very much.

COOK: Thank you, Rachel. You have a blessed day.


MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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