Gillibrand talks immigration

February 1, 2009 2:20:14 PM PST
New York's new senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, who has drawn fire from Hispanics over her views on immigration and gun control, says she's willing to listen and perhaps even change her positions on some subjects - but isn't ready to make any commitments. "We need to recognize the heritage that the immigrant community has provided to this country and put policies in place that will reflect that core value," Gillibrand, who recently assumed Hillary Clinton's old Senate seat, said after a two-hour meeting on Sunday with a dozen or so Hispanic members of the state Assembly and the City Council.

Gillibrand, an upstate Democrat and longtime supporter of the National Rifle Association, was chosen late last month by Gov. David Paterson to replace Clinton after she became U.S. secretary of state. Her appointment came shortly after front-runner Caroline Kennedy abruptly withdrew from consideration for the position.

The Hispanics at Sunday's meeting asked Gillibrand to support their concerns about federal laws and policies, including the deputizing of local law enforcement officers for deportation raids; the so-called Dream Act, which would allow children of illegal immigrant to qualify for college aid; the defining of English as an official language, and the facilitating of paths to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Gillibrand, twice elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the district that includes Albany, told reporters afterward she welcomed the meeting and predicted it would start a "fruitful relationship" on issues of immigration, health care, education and gun violence.

Asked whether she had changed any views as a result of the meeting, Gillibrand said, "I think that on some issues my position will change - and on others they will become broader."

She did not specify what those issues might be but signaled she was reluctant to modify her views on at least two - referring to English as "a unifying language that offers extraordinary opportunity to advance in this country" and drawing a sharp distinction between a need to curb gun violence in urban areas and "hunters' rights" to own guns.

"That is a different issue that will stand as it is," Gillibrand said of the gun debate.

While some of the Hispanic officials said they were prepared to give Gillibrand the "benefit of the doubt" and others called the meeting "a first step in the right direction," her statement didn't satisfy any of those present.

Joel Rivera, the Bronx-based majority leader of the heavily Democratic City Council, said Gillibrand "did not commit to stand with us."

"We've been given a lot of rhetoric," he said. "We are sick and tired of having to wait."

Rivera, a principal organizer of the meeting, said the Hispanic group asked Gillibrand to press President Barack Obama for an executive order ending federal policies that lead to "the separation of families."

A key element of that issue is the law allowing the deputizing of local law enforcers as immigration officers in raids that lead to deportation of illegal residents.

Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Manhattan Democrat, said the Hispanics were calling on Gillibrand to be "a champion on the issue of immigration."

"Her (House) voting record really is of great dismay to many of us who consider that immigration reform is and needs to be at the top of the agenda with regards to the federal government," she said.