MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You've certainly heard about the vulgar comments uttered by President Trump at a White House meeting on immigration, comments many consider racist. We'll talk about that in a few minutes in our Barbershop roundtable that will include two Republican former White House staffers. That's just later. But first, we want to hear from a member of Congress with a deep interest in the immigration issue, Republican Francis Rooney. He represents Florida's 19th District. He met with Speaker Paul Ryan this week, and he's with us now from Naples, Fla. Congressman, welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
FRANCIS ROONEY: Thank you for having me on, Michel.
MARTIN: Of course, I have to ask you your reaction to the president's comments referring to Africa, Haiti and El Salvador using a vulgarity that we've all now heard. Your reaction to this?
ROONEY: Well, we have a very important and vibrant Haitian community in Southwest Florida, and they contribute a lot to the richness of our community. And I would never disparage them. And by the way, I did write a letter asking to extend TPS for these Haitians. We really need them. We need their work ethic and their family ethic.
MARTIN: Another reason we reached out to you though, sir, is that you had an unusual past in the Congress. I mean, in your past life, you served as ambassador to the Vatican under President George W. Bush. And you understand the role that diplomats play in representing America to the world. So it's not just that many people, including traditional allies of the U.S, have been offended by this, it's also being said that this is the kind of statement that undermines U.S. moral leadership. And I wondered if you agree with that.
ROONEY: Well, I think it's very important for the United States to maintain its historic position of representing good values, if you will - you know, respect for human dignity, First Amendment freedoms and things like that.
MARTIN: So do you feel that this comment by the president, as reported, undermines that principle?
ROONEY: If he did that, I don't think it's a good comment. I would say that. But I do think - I agree with what you're saying. It's very important that the United States as a beacon of freedom and liberty in the world, maintain its lofty position. I'll tell you what I'm really concerned about is that we don't have enough people in the State Department to conduct that diplomacy that you're talking about. We need to get the State Department staffed up.
MARTIN: I do want to emphasize, the president has denied it, but numerous people have confirmed that he did say these things. So I just want to be clear on that from our listeners.
ROONEY: Oh, yeah, and I take everybody at their word. I wasn't there. I'm glad I wasn't. I'm glad I'm down here in Florida doing my job.
MARTIN: So let's talk about this issue that sparked all this to begin with. I wanted to ask if you think that these comments by the president are having an effect on the efforts to come to some agreement on the immigration bill. And, you know, as you know that there's a deadline, particularly with respect to the deferred action program for people who came here as children, the so-called DREAM Act or DACA. Do you feel that this is having some effect on the negotiations to address this?
ROONEY: I don't think any thread of negativity can have - can be helpful when there's such a wide difference of opinions between many Republicans and many Democrats. It's going to take some serious effort to compromise - to both take care of the DACA children and get some reforms to our immigration process that many of us think needs some reforming.
MARTIN: What are your colleagues saying about this? Are you all talking to each other over the weekend? I know a lot of people are home in their home districts, just as you are. But what's the chatter among members?
ROONEY: Well, I know what we were talking about late last week is that many of us would be just fine with the tentative conceptual four-point plan which Kevin McCarthy and Senator Feinstein described at the meeting in the White House. They were talking about DACA extension - not citizenship, DACA extension - some type of border security enhancement - I don't know if it has to be a wall or not - ending the diversity lottery and ending the chain migration. And I think there's a lot of Democrats that agree on most all these points.
MARTIN: It seems to me that this compromise is pretty heavy on enforcement. You feel that that appeals to people who have a very different view. I mean, some people call it chain migration, other people call it family reunification. A lot of people consider family reunification one of the critical factors in the success of immigrants in this country because they can help each other. And extended family and family is very important to many Americans as a shared value. I know it's important to you. Why do you think that's important?
ROONEY: Sure. This chain migration thing doesn't eliminate immediate family. I mean, immediate family is like grandparents and parents and kids. They would still be considered the nuclear family. It just would not apply that immigration status to people that are further attenuated.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, I noted that you ran on, I think what some would consider, a pretty restrictionist platform. But in the past, you have supported candidates like Marco Rubio and like Carlos Cuello as longtime Republican activists who had different views than yours. Is there anything about this issue in your own views that's changed over the course of time that you've been in office?
ROONEY: I think the only thing I would say is I'd probably continue to become more concerned about security as the years have gone by because we continue to see more and more threats, more and more instances of aborted terrorist attacks around the world, more and more things like San Bernardino, which was a overstayed visa. I think, you know, we're in a very dangerous world right now. And I'm not saying any group is bad, but I'm saying there are bad actors in every group. And so we need enough measures in place to catch them.
MARTIN: That is Congressman Francis Rooney. He represents the 19th Congressional District in Florida. He's a Republican in his first term. He was kind enough to join us from Naples, Fla. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ROONEY: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.