By Mike Lillis - 02/14/13 10:00 AM EST
A conservative congressman got into a heated exchange over immigration last week with one of his constituents who is living in the country illegally.
Two very different accounts have emerged from the Feb. 6 meeting between Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and an 18-year-old college student. But both sides say the discussion escalated into shouting that cut the meeting short, left the student in tears and stunned some staffers in Rohrabacher’s office.
The clash took place as President Obama and lawmakers are trying to pass legislation on immigration reform, one of the most divisive issues facing the 113th Congress.
“The moment I said that word [undocumented], it just completely changed the mood of the room,” Bravo said in a telephone interview. “He kept interrupting me and he was just, like, ‘Oh, you know, I love Mexicans, but I hate illegals.’ He was just yelling at us and pointing his fingers. I couldn’t even talk anymore because I was crying.”
Not true, says Rohrabacher’s office. Spokeswoman Tara Setmayer said it was Bravo’s chaperone — Minerva Gomez, a California-based immigration-reform advocate — who sparked the verbal battle. Gomez snapped at staffers in the room, Setmayer said, and suggested Rohrabacher’s opposition to so-called “amnesty” proposals, which would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the country legally, is race-based.
“We didn’t initiate the tone at all,” Setmayer said.
Bravo initiated the meeting this month by filling out an online form, complete with her address, through Rohrabacher’s office, which responded almost immediately with the offer of the Feb. 6 slot, Gomez said.
Bravo met with Rohrabacher, well-known for his opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, to urge him to embrace a pathway to citizenship.
The visit was part of a much larger grassroots push this month to rally Congress behind comprehensive immigration reform, with advocates visiting 112 lawmakers last week alone, Gomez said.
Gomez rejected any suggestion that the intention was to instigate an argument in order to embarrass lawmakers who don’t support the advocates’ position.
Setmayer, who attended last week’s meeting, said Rohrabacher listened “very attentively” and remained “very polite” through most of the 10-minute talk.
Rohrabacher simply asked why illegal immigrants should receive special consideration not given to those waiting to enter the country through legal channels, Setmayer said, “and [Bravo] didn’t know how to answer it.”
“He never said anything like, ‘Illegals should be kicked out,’ ” Setmayer said.
The tension arose, Setmayer said, after Gomez accused Rohrabacher of opposing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants because of the “color of their skin.” Setmayer, who is bi-racial, said she interjected at that point to dispute the notion that race was the issue. What happened next is in dispute.
Setmayer said Gomez responded rudely with, “I’m not talking to you,” which prompted Rohrabacher to tell Gomez “very sternly” that he wouldn’t allow her “to disrespect his staff or his office.”
Gomez, a community organizer with the Orange County Congregation Community Organization, said Rohrabacher and his staff were “never interested in listening” to Bravo’s story and continually interrupted her with “derogatory language” about “illegal aliens.”
When Setmayer spoke up, Gomez said she tried to shift the discussion back to Bravo’s story.
“I said, ‘Excuse me, but I’m talking to the congressman,’ ” Gomez said. That comment, she said, sent Rohrabacher through the roof.
“He’s already red, and he said, ‘What are you doing in this office?’ ” Gomez said. “It was just like a shock. Everything just escalated out of control.”
The episode highlights the emotion that’s sure to swirl as Congress delves into the debate over how to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, particularly as it pertains to the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.
Although the issue has been a third rail in Washington politics for years, November’s elections have changed the dynamics significantly. GOP leaders are more open to passing an immigration bill, but they will have to deal with vocal opponents of creating a pathway to citizenship, such as Rohrabacher.
Rohrabacher holds strong views on immigration, as evidenced by the biography on his website, which states he is “committed to securing our borders and a staunch opponent of amnesty for illegal immigrants.”
Setmayer said Rohrabacher is “not interested in rounding people up and deporting them,” but rather wants to “make it inconvenient” for illegal immigrants to live in the United States by bolstering enforcement measures and eliminating government benefits so they’ll “self-deport through attrition.”
What exactly happened at the end of last week’s meeting remains a classic case of he-said, she-said.
Bravo and Gomez contend Rohrabacher followed them out of his office — “screaming at us,” according to Bravo — and into the reception room, where he asked Bravo if she’d registered to make the appointment.
“I couldn’t even talk so I just nodded my head,” Bravo said. “And Minerva was, like, ‘Yes we did, sir.’ And he was, like, ‘Well, now I know where you live.’ ”
“What is that supposed to mean coming from him?” an emotional Bravo asked. “It’s like a threat not only to me but to my family.”
Setmayer dismisses almost all of that account. She said any screaming, at that point was coming from Gomez and that Rohrabacher had asked Gomez, not Bravo, if his office had her contact information.
“He’s met with illegal immigrants before,” Setmayer said. “He’s not going to pick up the phone to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and tell them there’s an illegal immigrant in his office. It’s ridiculous.”