U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono talked with Civil Beat shortly after President Barack Obama on Thursday announced executive action to bolster border security and protect nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.

While she said the plan is a good start, she agrees with the president that comprehensive immigration reform is needed, and that it should include a path to citizenship for what’s estimated to be more than 11 million people living in the shadows.

Hirono has a unique view on the matter : She is the only member of the Senate who is an immigrant herself.

She’s the go-to lawmaker in the Hawaii delegation when it comes to immigration, and she was instrumental in getting several provisions included in a comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year.

One amendment in particular would have restored Medicaid eligibility for migrants from Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands who are allowed to live in the U.S. under the Compact of Free Association.

Sen. Mazie Hirono chairs a Senate Veteran's Affairs Committee Field Hearing at the Oahu Veterans Center on August 19, 2014.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono is the only immigrant lawmaker in the Senate.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

CIVIL BEAT: What does President Obama’s executive action mean in the overall immigration discussion that’s taking place in the U.S?

MAZIE HIRONO: I know that the president’s action gave a lot of people in our country hope that we can move toward comprehensive immigration reform. This is a really great step toward allowing 5 million or so people to come out of the shadows to be able to work, to be able to have families, to pay their taxes so I think this is a really positive step.

However, as the president says, this is not permanent, and he continues to call for comprehensive immigration reform which is what we have been fighting for for over a year now. And the Senate did pass a comprehensive bill that was a compromise.

That bill passed in a Democrat-controlled Senate and died in the Republican-controlled House. Now Republicans control both chambers, so how can we expect comprehensive immigration reform to move forward?

The bill that passed the Senate was a bipartisan bill, and I think that the Senate Republicans and the Republicans in the House of Representatives see the cry for immigration reform in our country. The majority of the people want humane, comprehensive reform that does protect our borders but also enables 11 million undocumented people to be on the road to citizenship.

That is what the American people want, and I hope that what we got from this election is the desire of the American people that we get important things done in Congress. And comprehensive immigration reform is important. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that this is a broken system that needs to be fixed.

What does comprehensive immigration reform look like to you?

It would continue to have family unity as a guiding principle because our immigration policies up to now have made a priority of keeping families united. I’d like that to continue as a guiding principle for immigration reform. At the same time, I very much support a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people in our country who right now are living with the fear of deportation every single day.

We would also like to encourage more people with STEM backgrounds and those kinds of experiences to be able to stay here after they get their STEM degrees from our colleges.

A lot of this was in the comprehensive reform bill that we passed and in particular for Hawaii, we got a number of amendments into the bill that passed the Senate that addressed particularly situations in Hawaii.

For example, it’s really important that the Filipino World War II vets who fought side by side with American troops are able to reunite with their children in the Philippines. And their children who are in the Philippines, who are in their 60s or older, have been waiting for decades because of the backlog of people wanting to come to our country.

For Hawaii, restoring Medicaid eligibility for Compact migrants is critical because the state of Hawaii spends some $30 million to $40 million a year to provide healthcare for our Compact migrant families. And we would like to get reimbursed for that through having them because eligible, once again, for Medicaid.

Tourism is very important to our economy, and we know that if Hong Kong were to become eligible for visa waiver status that many more visitors from Hong Kong would come to Hawaii. So that was another amendment that would have a particularly beneficial impact on Hawaii.

Hawaii has unique immigration challenges, so what does Obama’s executive action mean for us?

There are estimates that we’ve been provided that say there are some 7,000 people in Hawaii who would be impacted by the president’s actions. So these would be DREAMers and these would be parents of U.S. citizen children in Hawaii.

How feasible is it that Congress will be able to pass comprehensive immigration reform before the temporary protections expire or are undone by a new president?

I am hopeful. If we have another president who cares as much as this president does about our families and keeping our families united and enabling people who are fearful of being deported every day, then I hope that next president will continue the executive order. But as this president says and I agree, we need to do legislation that’s going to put in the type of reforms that we’re talking about.

President Obama said immigrants are an important part of bolstering the U.S. economy, what immediate impacts do you see from his executive action?

What the impact of this will be to our country nationwide is in the hundreds of millions of dollars because there will be payroll taxes they will be paying for Social Security — without getting those benefits, by the way — and they will be buying products so it’s going to be a boon to our economy.

But at the same time I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the president is reflecting the values of our country with what he’s doing. He’s keeping families together. What good is it to separate parents from their American-born children and deporting these parents and putting their children in a foster care situation? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The value of keeping families together should not be lost.

Critics say the president’s action will encourage more people to enter the country illegally, how would you address those concerns?

The president also talked about stricter border control. What he’s saying is we should focus our resources on identifying risk and identifying people who pose safety risks to our people. Those are the people we ought to be identifying and deporting — not our families.

Is there anything more you’d like to add?

This is a broken system and we need to enact comprehensive immigration reform, and I call on the leaders of the House and Senate to follow the wishes of the American people.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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