House Republican divisions laid bare on immigration reform

Divisions among House Republicans were laid bare on Tuesday as the Judiciary Committee opened its consideration of immigration legislation aimed at boosting interior enforcement.

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The panel met to mark up the Safe Act, a conservative proposal that would make it a crime to be “unlawfully present” in the U.S. and would give new authority to state and local officials to enforce immigration laws.

The bill, authored by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), is the first in a series of individual immigration bills the committee hopes to send to the House floor, a piecemeal approach that contrasts with the single, comprehensive immigration overhaul that the Senate is now debating.

Gowdy and Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) touted the bill even as they promised the committee would tackle other aspects of immigration reform soon.

“There has to be a first step,” Gowdy said. “Enforcing the law strikes me as a reasonable place to begin.”

Democrats on the panel assailed the legislation. Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), the ranking member, said it would criminalize immigrants and result in “widespread racial profiling.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), a senior Democrat who has been negotiating a separate bipartisan immigration bill, said Gowdy’s bill “takes us back in time to an approach that has long been rejected by the American people.”

“I hope that the committee’s consideration of this bill is merely a bump in the road, because I believe that we’ve been making solid progress up to this point,” Lofgren said. “This bill puts in doubt that shared belief that we can come together and solve the problem of our broken immigration system together on a bipartisan basis.”

While most of the amendment votes fell along party lines, fissures on the Republican side of the dais emerged early on. 

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) offered an amendment that would delay until 2015 the provision making it a crime to be unlawfully present in the U.S.. 

Bachus said he put forward the amendment in the hope Congress would have passed a broader immigration measure granting legal status to many of those immigrants.

The amendment failed, but it won the support of 10 Republicans — a majority of those present, including Goodlatte and Gowdy.

Democrats praised Bachus’s amendment as an effort to improve the bill and an indication that he would back a more comprehensive proposal. But they voted en masse against it because they did not want to support the criminalization of immigrants unlawfully present at any point.

“I understand what you’re trying to do. I credit you for trying to make this better,” Lofgren said. “I cannot support making mere presence a crime in America.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) also opposed the amendment but said he was heartened by its intent. 

“I’m happy he proposed it, because from the deep South, the state of Alabama, Mr. Bachus stood up today and said, I’m uncomfortable with this, because I want to legalize people, and I don’t want to criminalize them,” Gutierrez said.

The mark-up occurred shortly after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told his members and the press that he would not bring an immigration bill to the floor that did not have the support of a majority of the House Republican conference. 

House leaders are also anticipating the release of a long-awaited bipartisan proposal that could be unveiled in the coming weeks. 

Negotiators of that bill have struggled to complete the legislation, and one Republican member, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), acknowledged on Tuesday that the bipartisan group risked losing relevance if it did not release its bill soon.

Lofgren said as far as Democrats were concerned, the bill was ready to go.

“The bill is done,” she told reporters. “It’s up to the Republicans to decide whether they want to sign onto it.”

At various points Tuesday, Goodlatte sought to make clear that Republicans intended to address all aspects of immigration reform, including a potential path to legalization for illegal immigrants that Democrats believe is essential.

The meeting continued into the evening, and it was unclear at press time whether the committee would hold a final vote on the legislation Tuesday or Wednesday.

A few conservatives on the committee oppose any broad-based immigration bill, and it was unclear whether they would support legislation that could ultimately be used to negotiate a final compromise with the Senate. 

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration hardliner, offered a number of amendments aimed at moving the bill to the right. When he pushed a proposal to end birthright citizenship, Goodlatte urged him to withdraw it, and King agreed.

Early in the day, demonstrators interrupted and briefly delayed the start of the mark-up. Immediately after Goodlatte gaveled open the meeting, about a dozen activists in the room stood and began chanting loudly, “Shame! Shame! Shame! Stop the pain!”

Goodlatte and Conyers, the top Democrat on the committee, urged the protesters to be quiet, but the commotion spread to the corridors outside the hearing room, where dozens of activists began their own chant of “Si se puede!”

The protesters were affiliated with the group Fair Immigration Reform Movement and have pushed for enactment of the Dream Act, which would offer a path to citizenship to younger immigrants who were brought into the country illegally by their parents.

Goodlatte congratulated the demonstrators for graduating high school and college, and he said the committee would “work its will” and “hopefully” move in the direction they sought. He encouraged those who were “intent on listening” to the committee’s proceedings to stay, but he said those who wanted to disrupt the hearing “need to leave.”

After a few moments, the room quieted down, and the mark-up continued.