Immigration: Heated Hearing Serves Up Opening Salvo In Congress

Secretary Julian Castro in a 2013 file photo.

Secretary Julian Castro in a 2013 file photo.  (ap)

In the first congressional hearing this year on immigration on Tuesday, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro pushed for major reform that embraces both border security and  legalization to undocumented immigrants who meet strict criteria.

Castro, a young star within the Democratic Party and who draws from his experience as a border state leader, told members of the House Judiciary Committee: "We must do at least three things: further strengthen border security; streamline the legal immigration process so that law-abiding companies can get the workers they need in this 21st century global economy; and create a path to citizenship to bring the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country out of the shadows and into the full light of the American Dream."

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said during the daylong hearing that the nation's immigration system is "in desperate need of repair." 

The much anticipated hearing came as President Barack Obama pushes for swift action to pass immigration legislation and as bipartisan Senate negotiators work to craft a bill. But in a sign of  difficulties to come, Goodlatte cautioned against a "rush to judgment" and said each piece of the issue must be examined in detail.

Earlier in the day, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, reiterated a similar warning, saying leaders need to take their time and not try to rush to enact a new immigration law.

Goodlatte said there are lots of questions about how any large-scale legalization program would work, how much it would cost and how it would prevent illegal immigration in future.

Obama supports a pathway to citizenship for the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country, something many Republicans oppose.

Goodlatte questioned whether another approach might be possible: "Are there options we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?" he asked.

His question underscored the discomfort within GOP circles with granting eventual citizenship to undocumented immigrants, something conservatives often decry as amnesty -- rewarding illegal behavior.

At one point the hearing was interrupted by protesters, apparently young undocumented immigrants known as "DREAMers" brought illegally into the country as children, who shouted "undocumented and unafraid," a mantra they use often -- before being escorted out of the hearing room.

Yet Tuesday's hearing, which focused on fixing the legal immigration system and on enforcement, was notable for the generally measured tone from some Republicans known for strong anti-immigration positions.

Several questioned whether there's a way short of citizenship to deal with undocumented immigrants, and others on the panel agreed on the need to allow more high-skilled workers to enter the country, a priority for technology companies.

"Let's not let the more contentious issues and the idea of comprehensive reform prevent us from passing something," said Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.

Bachus' appeal for a clear-eyed approach to reviewing the contentious issue was part of a larger shift by Republicans who have begun to embrace action on immigration reform in the wake of the November elections in which large proportions of Hispanic voters supported Obama, helping him win re-election.

Some GOP leaders concluded that softening their views on immigration is becoming a political necessity.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., delivered a speech Tuesday embracing "an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home." 

It appeared to be a significant reversal for Cantor, who voted against DREAM Act legislation to allow a path to citizenship for certain immigrants brought here as youths.

But even the softened GOP tone did not satisfy some immigrant advocacy groups, which criticized the hearing's focus on enforcement.

"The GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee held a hearing that tilted away from common sense solutions," said Eliseo Medina, an administrator with Service Employees International Union said. "It serves as a reminder that we have to remain watchful over the legislative process to make sure that voters learn who are the champions of reform and who are the ones who will try to obstruct the process."

Meanwhile, groups that favor strict immigration enforcement also had their own criticism.

"President Obama's meeting with union and business leaders today reinforced their support for loose labor markets and their disdain for the American worker," said Roy Beck, who heads NumbersUSA, which lobbies for stricter immigration enforcement. "It’s not surprising to find some big business executives rallying behind increased flows of foreign workers to depress wages. However it is utterly baffling that union leaders can be for Obama's blueprint for a massive expansion of foreign workers to directly compete with their members."

Some in Congress believe that the best way to reform various aspects of immigration is through piecemeal legislation

On Tuesday, a group of mostly Democrats in the House introduced a bill that would allow gay and lesbians to sponsor their partners for legal residency in the United States. Supporters of the measure, known as the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), say that a reform of the immigration system should include gay and lesbian families.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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