“We have been strengthened by waves of immigrants throughout our history, and we must keep the door open and the melting pot working. However, in this era of terrorism, we must have far better control of our borders, both to protect ourselves from violence and to protect taxpayers from undue burdens.” –Congressman Ray LaHood, potentially the next Secretary of Transportation, from his 2007 testimony on the need for immigration reform
So here’s a curveball – the selection of Arab-American Congressman Ray LaHood (R-IL) by the incoming Obama administration to run the Department of Transportation (DOT).
Sidestepping the four democratic front runners for the DOT slot highlighted in this space not too long ago, the tapping of LaHood seems to signal several things. For starters, LaHood has long been a supporter of public transit and especially Amtrak, so his choice indicates that a good slice of the $500 billion to $1 trillion super-infrastructure fund the Obama administration is creating could go in the direction of public transit and rail projects.
LaHood is also a strong supporter of immigration reform – a controversial topic of late – and being a second-generation Lebanese immigrant himself (full disclosure here – I’m third-generation immigrant, by way of Ireland and the Ukraine) should give him some standing to pursue reform from the transportation-border security perspective.
“My grandparents came to this country in search of better opportunities, and settled happily alongside fellow Lebanese immigrants in Central Illinois,” LaHood said in testimony before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law in September 2007 to support of the “Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy” or STRIVE Act.
“The fact that I am here, testifying before you today as a member of Congress, exemplifies the contributions immigrants are making to the United States,” he stressed. “If this nation is accepting of those who wish to contribute to society with their skills and knowledge, as it has been in the past, it is our duty to provide an appropriate and functional process for the transition and assimilation of immigrants.”
[Congressman LaHood announced his retirement from the House this year after serving for 14 years as an elected official. Watch the video below to get his first-hand impressions of his nearly decade and a half service in Congress.]
First, he said, it is important that we secure our borders and stop the flood of illegal aliens who come into this country every day. “We must remain vigilant in the war on terror, and that includes keeping a close eye on our own borders,” LaHood said. “While it is recognized that most immigrants come to the United States with a desire to improve life for themselves and their families, we cannot ignore the crime generated from some of the illegal aliens living here.”
Yet he also believes a revamped guest worker program and addressing the millions of immigrants currently living and working in the U.S. without a path to citizenship are absolutely essential as well. “Many of the aliens currently here entered the U.S. legally, but have overstayed their visas or gotten lost in the application process,” LaHood said. “These are hard workers who contribute to the economy and call the U.S. home. For those who have been here for several years, they have the option to get in line and apply for permanent residency. After a rigorous process of paying fines, back taxes, providing past documentation, and returning home to their country of origin, many will be considered as candidates for citizenship.”
LaHood (pictured on the right) firmly believes sending all these guest workers and laborers back home immediately would be devastating to our economy. “Finding a good compromise between awarding citizenship and imposing penalties is important,” he explained.
Like I said – LaHood is an interesting choice.
Currently serving 7th term in Congress, he represents the 18th Congressional District of Illinois – a district, coincidentally, that encompasses almost the entire area contained in the Congressional District represented by Abraham Lincoln for his one term (1847-1849) in the U.S. House of Representatives.
LaHood currently serves on the House Appropriations Committee – the all-important group in managing the federal government’s purse strings – and is a ranking member of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, serves on the Subcommittee on Agricultural, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, as well as the Subcommittee on Legislative Branch
(You can click here for more details about his career.)
For a good stretch of his political career, LaHood served on the House’s Transportation Committee so he’s well familiar with all the problems the DOT faces – especially its lack of money. It’s also interesting to note that President Bush also used the DOT as part of an effort to show “bi-partisanship” in his first term, nominating Norman Mineta – a Democrat – to that post. It seems Obama is doing something similar along those lines here.
[Lahood is on the left in this photo below, with Chet Tomczyk of WTVP in Peoria on the right.]
Any way you cut it, Ray LaHood is a surprising, unusual choice in many ways. How he’ll fare as Secretary of Transportation, should he be officially nominated and be confirmed by Coigress, is when the real test of his skills begins.