U.S. Representatives Bring National Issues to UB

Three congressmen from Western New York - Reps. John LaFalce (D-Grand Island, Town of Tonawanda), Thomas Reynolds (R-Clarence) and Jack Quinn (R-Hamburg) - met Sunday night at the Center for Tomorrow to discuss topics ranging from school vouchers to immigration laws and their effects on life in the post-Sept. 11 era.

One of the most pressing issues discussed was the U.S. response to terrorism in respect to immigration and homeland security. All three representatives agreed that immigration is a permanent facet of the United States, but supported monitoring immigration policies more closely.

"I think we can become a greater country if we permit more immigrants into the United States rather than close the doors to the United States, rather than put the Statue of Liberty aside temporarily," said LaFalce.

LaFalce noted that all 19 terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks entered the United States legally with visas. "But we have to be a bit more careful of who we let in," he added.

Reynolds agreed, saying, "Immigration services need to be held accountable for doing their jobs."

"I am for immigration in all ways except ways that cause our own the opportunity to experience what we experienced on Sept. 11," said Quinn, adding that the United States must be smart with technology to prevent another terrorist attack, but also must watch costs.

LaFalce, questioned by an audience member, addressed UB's role in international student exchange and study abroad programs.

He said the government should screen students before they receive visas permitting them to enter the country.

The representatives agreed that the Patriot Act, which among other powers expands the authority of law enforcement agencies to conduct searches for intelligence purposes, was necessary but felt that important precautions should be taken to "make sure we do not give away too much constitutional freedom," said Reynolds.

The three men all affirmed that a sunset - the time when the law would end - had to be determined to keep law enforcement officials from exceeding their power.

LaFalce said the government must do a much better job of tracking money-laundering drug dealers and terrorists. LaFalce's "Money Laundering Bill," contained within the Patriot Act, allows for the monitoring of bank accounts of suspected terrorists.

Quinn's main concern was the additional costs of measures implemented by the president and that, although the budget will operate in the deficit, sufficient resources exist to make budget cuts without giving up services or raising taxes.

The congressmen also spoke on topics in the area of separation of church and state: charitable choice, the use of vouchers, charter schools and the propriety of religious ceremonies and displays in public schools.

Charitable choice, or the federal funding of churches and religious organizations that provide social services, was the most disagreed-upon topic of the evening.

"There have been countless ways in which government has, in a sense, given assistance to what are primarily religious organizations," said LaFalce. "I do not advocate these charitable choice bills, but I do not find them objectionable."

He does, however, disagree completely with the way President George W. Bush wishes to deal with the distribution of money to the organizations.

"I would like to see monies handed out in a nondiscriminatory manner ... I think it is fraught with peril when you create an office within the office of the presidency whose primary role and mission is to promote monies for specifically religious-based organizations," said LaFalce.

Quinn disagreed with LaFalce. "I support this initiative, but I think we really really have to be careful that we don't cross the line where we get involved in making a determination that some group or groups receive funding based on their religious beliefs - that's where we cross the line."

Reynolds believes expanding partnerships with faith-based programs could lead to innovative solutions, which would particularly benefit distressed communities not adequately served by existing social services.

Under the president's proposal, Reynolds said, "the charitable choice programs are explicitly required to be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the religious clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution."

As for school vouchers, which also blur the line between church and state, Reynolds said they may not be the solution to helping children receive a quality education, because they do not necessarily give money to all children. "When vouchers leave no children behind, I'll look at it," he said.

The discussion also addressed the familiar conflict between the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom and the clause barring the government's establishment of religion. The representatives reiterated the belief that while prayer in school can occur on a voluntary basis, school prayer should never be compulsory.

"We have to foster a climate where we don't subtly coerce [students] into prayer," said LaFalce.