By Russell Berman - 02/05/13 10:48 PM EST
House Republicans used the first hearing on immigration of the 113th Congress to seek a middle ground between “mass deportation” of illegal immigrants and the full path to citizenship that Democrats are demanding in a broad overhaul this year.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), warned against a “rush to judgment” on immigration reform as he opened the first of what he has said would be a “long series” of hearings on the top second-term priority of President Obama.
“Immigration reform must honor both our foundation of the rule of law and our history as a nation of immigrants,” Goodlatte said in his opening statement, calling the task a “massive undertaking.”
“This issue is too complex and too important to not examine each piece in detail. We can’t rush to judgment,” he said.
His comments came as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also cautioned Tuesday against a hurried solution, despite Obama’s push for swift action on immigration from Congress in the coming months.
In a hearing that stretched more than five hours, the committee heard from eight witnesses in two panels, including Mayor Julian Castro (D) of San Antonio, a Democrat who delivered the keynote address at the party’s national convention in Charlotte.
While the hearing focused on the nation’s legal immigration system, in his questioning of Castro, Goodlatte cut to the central – and most contentious – question of the push for a comprehensive solution – what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the country.
“Are there options we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship?” Goodlatte asked Castro.
The mayor responded that he supported a path to citizenship and did not view it as an “extreme” option.
“I would disagree with the characterization of that as extreme,” said Castro, who spoke as his brother, freshman Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), sat directly behind him in the audience. “I think the extreme would be open borders.”
Obama has called for a path to citizenship that is clear “from the outset” of immigration reform, whereby undocumented immigrants would be granted temporary legal status and be allowed to pay fines and stand in the back of the line in applying for full citizenship. A bipartisan Senate group has endorsed a path to citizenship that is partially conditioned on enhancements in border security.
The questioning at Tuesday’s hearing underscored the difficulty that House Republicans are likely to have in accepting a path to citizenship, which conservatives have long derided as “amnesty.” Yet the hearing also suggested that a change in tone has taken shape in GOP circles.
Few of the Republicans on the committee used the word “amnesty,” which was mentioned just once in the morning panel, by Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who pushed for a piecemeal approach to immigration.
“When you take comprehensive [reform], then we’re dealing with certain issues like full citizenship,” Bachus said. “And whatever else we disagree on, I think we would agree on that that’s a more toxic and contentious issue, granting full amnesty.”
Bachus said Congress should move first on legislation that would increase visas for high-skilled immigrant workers, which has broad bipartisan support. “I think we could pass a bill that would take it off the table,” he said.
Protesters supporting the Dream Act briefly interrupted the hearing, chanting “undocumented and unafraid” before they were escorted out of the room.
Democrats on the committee used their time to reject a piecemeal approach, arguing that the complex issues in immigration reform could only be addressed together.
“The notion of a comprehensive immigration [bill] has been pushed around and bandied about, but the fact of the matter is this is one big challenge that I don’t think we can handle on a piecemeal basis,” said Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), the committee’s ranking Democrat.
The push for a piecemeal approach drew support from one of the witnesses, Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University, who pushed the panel to act but cast doubt on the prospects for addressing what he called the “toxic” question of citizenship.
“It doesn’t have to be done all or none immediately. It can be done over time,” Wadhwa said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a member of a secretive bipartisan House working group on immigration, specifically criticized a push for “partial legalization” that would stop short of offering the opportunity for full citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“A few words of caution: Partial legalization, as some are suggesting, is a dangerous path,” Lofgren said at the outset of the hearing.
Castro also repeatedly pushed back on Republicans advocating a status for undocumented immigrants short of citizenship.
“I just cannot imagine an America where we consign these folks to an underclass status,” he said. “The one thing I know is if you try to piecemeal it, you will find yourself back here 10, 15, 20 years from now.”
Time and again, Republicans returned to the status question, arguing that granting a pathway to citizenship would incentivize illegal immigration and reward bad behavior.
“It seems like the stumbling block for almost everybody is the pathway to citizenship you’ve been talking about for such a long time,” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) said.
Conservative Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who has participated in bipartisan immigration talks, repeated his warning to Democrats that they risked the prospect for comprehensive reform by insisting on citizenship.
“If we want a political solution, you guys are going to insist on a pathway to citizenship,” he said.
Castro and other Democrats responded by stressing that most undocumented immigrants would not gain citizenship overnight and that they would have to “earn” citizenship like any other immigrant.
“This is a years-long process,” Castro said.
Lawmakers also focused on the issues surrounding the legal immigration system, questioning witnesses on whether starting a guest-worker program or increasing high-skilled visas would threaten jobs for U.S. citizens. A second panel examined enforcement of current laws.
As a whole, the daylong hearing offered both hope and caution to advocates of comprehensive reform.
“We may not have settled much, but that’s the way these things start out, isn’t it?” Conyers said, drawing chuckles from the room.