Social Security reform and immigration are among issues topping priorities of Hispanic members of Congress as federal lawmakers continue to organize their agendas for the 109th Congress.
According to Marma Mier, executive director for the all-Democratic 22-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus, members are planning to approve a CHC legislative agenda formally next month.
Social Security reform will be among the top issues. “Because the majority of Latinos depend on Social Security as their only safety net, reforms can be made only if it is protected,” Mier warns.
On the heels of President Bush’s Jan. 11 push to divert personal investments from the fund into personal savings accounts, Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., the lone Latino on the House Ways and Means Committee, emphasizes, “Social Security has paid benefits in full and on time to every beneficiary every month for the last 70 years. The program works well and can continue to provide 100 percent of its promised benefits for the next 75 years if left to operate under current economic conditions.”
Through his proposal, Bush promises to alleviate what his administration calls a potential financial crisis in the fund. A bill is expected in early fall.
Hispanic Republicans generally support the president’s plan, says Mario Lspez, executive director of the all-Republican 16-member Congressional Hispanic Conference.
Lspez makes the point: “Rep. Mario Dmaz-Balart, R-Fla., is very interested in the potential of people to create their own wealth for them and their own children.”
In addition to Social Security reform and making permanent tax cuts implemented by Bush in 2003, immigration promises to be a major issue for Latino lawmakers. Bush has stated he will push the guest worker initiative he proposed last year but did not pursue. During discussions on the intelligence bill based on the 9/11 Commission late last year, the majority of Hispanic members on both sides of the aisle disavowed the inclusion of any immigration-related provisions that were not proposed by the commission into the final bill.
Although they were taken out in final negotiations, House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., reintroduced the measures on the opening day of the 109th Congress. His legislation would ban states from issuing drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants. Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., also introduced bills adding photographs and electronic features to Social Security cards and limiting the number of suits filed by certain undocumented immigrants.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chair of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, worked to remove the provisions from the intelligence bill, saying, “I am committed to ensuring that the final legislation considered by the House maintains the delicate balance between homeland security, fundamental due process rights, and the principles relating to refugees and immigrants that are at the core of our nation’s. history.”
Hispanic members are committed to the reauthorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act. They are concerned about increases in college tuition and availability of federal aid, Mier says.
The Department of Education has recently come under fire by some education advocates because of its proposed change in the formula used to determine eligibility for low-income students.
Approval of new federal guidelines for higher education is expected in March.
Hispanic members of Congress are also eyeing continued implementation of accountability provisions related to the No Child Left Behind Act. They say their local districts do not have sufficient money to meet federal mandates. One of Bush’s proposed changes to the NCLB Act would require yearly state testing in reading and math in grades 3 through 11.
Ciaran Clayton, spokeswoman for Rep. Rubin Hinojosa, D-Texas, adds that while the congressman applauds the president’s call for more funding to cover costs for the increased testing, low graduation rates among groups of color remain an issue.
Hinojosa plans to re-introduce a bill next month increasing grants to promoting adult literacy and disaggregating data issued by state and local education agencies by race, ethnicity, income, disability and limited-English-proficiency status.
With Sens. Mel Martmnez, R-Fla., and Ken Salazar, D-Colo., serving as the first Latinos in the U.S. Senate in more than three decades, Hispanic leaders say they feel their agenda may get an added push.
Ros-Lehtinen says she expects Martmnez to be of great help. “I look forward to working with him to improve the lives of all who call this great country home.”
(Fresia Rodrmguez Cadavid is editor of Hispanic Link Weekly Report in Washington, D.C. She may be reached by e-mail at Fresia(at)HispanicLink.org,)