GOP-White House immigration tension explodes into public

Tensions over immigration reform between the White House and House Republicans flared into the open Tuesday over the GOP’s commitment to an issue central to President Obama’s agenda.

White House press secretary Jay Carney criticized as “laughable” a claim by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that nobody had done more than him to fix the nation’s immigration system.

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The House Republican chairman of the immigration subcommittee, meanwhile, attacked White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer as a “demagogic, self-serving political hack” for his criticism of an emerging GOP proposal.

The back-and-forth marked a departure from the careful tone that both the White House and Republican leaders had adopted on immigration in recent months, with Democrats growing increasingly impatient with the House’s slow-moving, piecemeal approach to the issue.

It also underscored the perilous path for the legislative push in the GOP-controlled House, which is likely to break for a five-week August recess without considering any immigration bills on the floor.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday held an initial hearing on the legal status of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are crafting legislation to grant this limited population a path to citizenship, but Democrats have warned that they would not support proposals that do not address all 11 million illegal immigrants.

At the hearing, Republicans made clear that they view immigrant children as unique and argued they should be treated differently from people who knowingly overstayed their visas or crossed the border illegally.

“I do not believe that parents who made the decision to illegally enter the U.S. while forcing their children to join them should be afforded the same treatment as these kids,” Goodlatte said at the outset.

The chairman of the immigration subcommittee, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), noted that federal law treats children differently in almost every case. 

“Simply put, children brought here have not committed a crime, misdemeanor or otherwise,” Gowdy said. “The adults have, but the children have not.”

A bipartisan panel of House members, Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), Jeff Denham (R-Calif.)  and Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), testified in support of the idea of granting citizenship for children brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents.

The committee also heard testimony from so-called Dreamers, who have advocated legalizing their own status for years but are now rejecting any proposal that does not include citizenship for the entire population living in the U.S. illegally.

“We will not accept proposals that leave our parents behind or criminalizes our community,” said Rosa Velazquez, a member of the national coordinating committee for United We Dream, before the hearing.

Fighting back tears, she then told the committee: “When members of Congress tell me that I deserve the opportunity to earn citizenship, and my mother doesn’t, I tell them that if anyone deserves that opportunity to earn citizenship, it is my mother, Rosalinda.”

Goodlatte asked another witness, Pamela Rivera, whether she thought her mother, who was deported back to Colombia, would accept a solution that granted her daughter citizenship but not her. Rivera struggled to answer. “It’s very difficult for me to say we’d be okay with that,” she said. “And quite frankly, I wouldn’t be okay with that.” Rivera is a U.S. citizen.

Goodlatte replied: “I understand that you would not want them to have to make that decision. Congress has to make that decision, and that’s the hard part.”

A senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), said that “partial legalization is a dangerous path,” and she warned against separating parents from their children. “When you’re pitting son and daughters against moms and dads, you’re creating a system that’s not healthy,” she said.

The hearing played out as the White House began signaling it would increase pressure on House Republicans after months of hewing to a strategy that allowed Congress the public space to work on the issue. In a Twitter post, Pfeiffer referred to the GOP plan to address only immigrant children as “cruel hypocrisy,” and Carney said at the White House that the proposal was “hardly a workable solution.”

Aides to Boehner criticized the comments, saying the White House was moving toward a hard line on immigration by resisting the “step-by-step approach” the Speaker is leading. And Gowdy called out Pfeiffer at the end of the Judiciary hearing, denouncing him as a “demagogic, self-serving political hack” for his Twitter comments.

At a press conference earlier Tuesday, Boehner defended his role in the push for immigration reform against the suggestion that he had taken a “hands-off” approach.

“Whoa, stop, just stop,” he said to a reporter. “Let’s get back to the premise of the question. Nobody’s spent more time trying to fix a broken immigration system than I have.”

Asked about Boehner’s claim, Carney said it was “laughable.” He said that if the House approves comprehensive immigration reform, “credit for that will accrue to the Speaker.”

“But thus far we have not seen any evidence from House leaders for a commitment to comprehensive reform,” Carney said.

Pfeiffer also called on all Republican House members to denounce Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) for “comparing the Dreamers to drug mules.”

In comments to Newsmax that Democrats circulated on Tuesday, King said in reference to immigrants brought to the U.S. as children: “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds, and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert. Those people would be legalized with the same act.”

With King sitting in the room, Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) referenced the comments at the beginning of the Judiciary Committee hearing, saying they were “offensive” and “beneath the dignity of this House and of this country.” King spoke at the hearing but did not respond directly to Garcia.

This story was updated at 6:21 p.m. and updated at 8:25 p.m.