Judiciary to start piece-by-piece approach to immigration reform

Leaders of the House Judiciary Committee announced Thursday they would begin introducing a series of narrow immigration reform proposals, choosing not to wait for a bipartisan coalition to reach agreement on comprehensive legislation.

Saying the committee would examine immigration reform “in a step-by-step approach,” Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said Republicans would introduce the first two pieces of legislation this week. One bill would establish an agricultural guest-worker program, while the other would create an employment verification system for businesses.

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The move is part of Goodlatte’s plan to take a deliberative approach to immigration as House Republican leaders work behind the scenes to build support among the party’s conservative membership for a comprehensive overhaul. With the House bipartisan group slow to complete its legislation, the lower chamber has taken a back seat to the Senate, where an 844-page proposal is now moving through committee.

“This process can be long, but it allows every representative and senator to have their constituents’ voices heard,” Goodlatte said at a Capitol news conference Thursday. “And by taking a fine-toothed comb through each of the individual issues within the larger immigration debate, it will help us get a better bill that will benefit Americans and provide a workable immigration system.”

Advocates of comprehensive reform have worried that the Judiciary Committee would slow-walk or pick apart bipartisan legislation, and Goodlatte took pains to say that the introduction of individual bills would not preclude the panel from acting on comprehensive legislation. 

He said the committee would hold hearings but not necessarily a legislative markup on the piecemeal legislation.

“No one should take the limited bills that we’re introducing here this week to be in any way an indication of our overall interest in solving all of the various aspects of immigration reform that are before the House and the Senate,” Goodlatte said. “We’re not viewing anything we introduce as a final product.”

Goodlatte said more bills would follow, but he did not say how many. While the bills will be introduced by Republicans, he expects they will receive bipartisan support.

House GOP leaders have been mulling whether to advance immigration reform in pieces to improve its chances of passage in a conference wary of lengthy, complex proposals. Yet some Republicans who favor reform say the various components of an overhaul are too interconnected to be split apart into separate bills.

Goodlatte reiterated that he would not put “arbitrary” deadlines on the process, although he acknowledged the difficulty of achieving major legislation in an election year if it is not finished in 2013. Rep. Raúl Labrador (Idaho), a Republican in the bipartisan House immigration group who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, has said if reform does not get done this year, it won’t get done at all.

The House group has been working on legislation for more than four years, but Democratic sources say it remains stuck on the contours of a guest-worker program. The group is not expected to unveil legislation before May.

“We’re not stalled. We’re still moving forward,” a Republican in the House group, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), said Thursday.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice and a longtime advocate of comprehensive reform, said in an interview Wednesday that he hoped Goodlatte’s decision to move forward on individual bills would spur the bipartisan House group to strike its deal and release legislation.

But Diaz-Balart said no such kick was needed.

“I think it would be fair to say that anybody who has been dealing with this issue for a long, long time are the first people who want to get this thing out of the way,” he said with a laugh. “So nobody has to spur me into anything.”

Goodlatte acknowledged that his move was aimed in part at moving the process along. Top Republicans have met with about 100 rank-and-file members to educate them about the complexities of immigration law, and the chairman said he hoped the introduction of legislation would encourage more Republicans to attend those sessions.

Republicans have been adamant that neither rank-and-file members nor voters at large will accept broad legislation that grants legal status to immigrants in the country illegally if they feel it has been rushed into law.

“The result and the process is, at least to me, inextricably intertwined,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the immigration subcommittee on the Judiciary panel.

Members of the working groups in both the House and Senate offered mixed reactions to Goodlatte’s announcement.

A leading Democrat in the bipartisan House group, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), said Thursday he welcomed the move and saw it as an indication of a sincere commitment to immigration reform.

“Today’s press conference confirms what I have been saying publicly and privately about the new tone and new interest among Republicans,” Gutiérrez said in a statement. “They want to solve the immigration policy issue and not just exploit it for partisan politics.”

Gutiérrez added that Goodlatte and Gowdy were “in a very different place than some Republicans we have heard in the House and Senate who want to slow down reform so that they can kill it.”

A leading conservative in the Senate gang, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), also cheered the announcement. 

“I look forward to studying these bills, particularly to see if they offer ideas we can incorporate into the Senate bill as it moves through the amendment process,” Rubio said in a statement. “Just as our Senate legislation is a starting point for debate, these House measures are important starting points for the debate that will take place there.”

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) was more circumspect. 

“Everyone wants to make progress on immigration reform, so I hope this is an effort to try to get us there,” he said.

Asked if he believed the effort was sincere, he repeated himself: “I hope this is an effort to try to get us there.”

--This report was originally published at 4:38 p.m. and last updated at 7:51 p.m.