Immigration 101: House Offers its Members Classes on Complex Issue

Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-VA, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee

Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-VA, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee  (2012 Getty Images)

Rep. Robert Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, believes a key reason that immigration reform efforts have failed in the past is because many members of Congress do not understand the complexities of the issue.

The Virginia Republican, who as House Judiciary chair holds considerable sway over how immigration reform talks go in the chamber, points out that he is only one of a few members in the House with expertise in immigration law. So the former immigration lawyer has begun holding immigration classes, which he characterizes as presentations, for House members and staffers.

“This is for all members of Congress,” said Goodlatte in an interview with Fox News Latino in his Rayburn Building office. “We have hour-long presentations that allow time for comments and questions.”

Goodlatte, whose committee handles immigration matters, said the issue was a complicated one.

“The reason the immigration bill failed in 2007 in the U.S. Senate, when you had a Republican president and Democratic Congress, was that they did not follow regular order, they did not take this through the process of hearings on all the components, where you educate members. Most members of Congress did not have a lot of familiarity with [immigration].”

We have 435 members, so we’re going to have a lot of work to do to have these members understand. We’ve had two [presentations] so far, we plan to do a lot more of them.

- Rep. Robert Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee

The immigration presentations, Goodlatte said, aim to cover the nuts and bolts of the process of gaining admission to the United States, enforcement, illegal immigration, as well as the different types of undocumented immigrants, such as those who illegally crossed the border, those who entered the United States lawfully but overstayed their visas, and so-called DREAMers, who were brought to the country as minors.

The move comes as momentum is high for a comprehensive reform bill that would both tighten enforcement and find some way for undocumented immigrants – estimated at 11 million – to come out of the shadows. A bipartisan group in the U.S. Senate unveiled a proposal that would provide a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria, but that would kick in after the border is deemed secure. President Obama unveiled his own proposal, which is similar to that of the senators, except that it would not make legalization contingent on first securing the border.

The 2007 bill, spearheaded by Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, had the fervent support of President George W. Bush, who personally lobbied members of Congress to get behind it. But bipartisan bickering over various aspects of the bill doomed it.

“The bill was the view of some members of the Senate from on high,” Goodlatte said. “It did not have a lot of buy-in from the average U.S. senator.”

“Enforcement is not just about securing the border,” he said, “but addressing the 35 to 40 percent of people who are unlawfully in the United States, who came here legally.”

Goodlatte said the goal is “bringing members up to speed and having them understand the complexities of these issues.”

The task, he conceded, is a formidable one.

“We have 435 members, so we’re going to have a lot of work to do to have these members understand,” he said. “We’ve had two [presentations] so far, we plan to do a lot more of them.”

They are also open to congressional staffers, he said.

“They’re equally important in terms of having an understanding of this so that as they’re working for their members of Congress, they have more time to delve into it, and they can be the person that member of Congress has entrusted with this issue.”

Aside from his own sort of “Immigration 101” plan in the House, Goodlatte also has pledged to hold several hearings on immigration reform.

Goodlatte is known as one of the more hard-line members of Congress on immigration matters.

But in the interview, he said Congress needs to consider providing a legal status to come undocumented immigrants to “bring people out of the shadows.”

The 1986 amnesty failed, he said, because while millions of undocumented people were granted U.S. permanent residency, enforcement was not properly addressed.

Instead, he said, “The problem got much worse.”

“The two key parts [to immigration reform] are on the spectrum between deportation and citizenship,” he said. “Can we find the spot where we can give legal status, and it might be different for different people.”

He said that there might have to be different pathways to legalization for DREAMers, who, Goodlatte said, “were brought here by their parents at an early age when they had no control over that.”

And, he said, perhaps visa overstays should be treated differently than people who illegally crossed the border.

 “You have people who attempted to abide by the law, and they should not be put in more limited circumstances than people who haven’t,” he said. “There are literally a billion who like to come to the United States if we let them.”

Goodlatte would not join the chorus of those in the House and Senate who say that they’re sure immigration reform will happen his year because of the increased momentum.

“We have a lot of work to do, and a long way to go, and I don’t think you can draw that conclusion yet.”

Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, said he plans to attend one of the presentations, which have drawn about 50 people each so far.

Coffman, whose once-mostly Republican district was redrawn to include more Latinos, has softened his stance on immigration reform – going from being firmly against any kind of legalization for undocumented immigrants to now supporting it.

Having Latino constituents who bring stories to his office about their immigration problems, he said in a recent interview with Fox News Latino, gave him a different perspective on the issues he once thought he knew.

“It’s different when you talk about immigration in the abstract,” he said of his own education about immigration. “It’s very different when you sit in front of a family, and [undocumented] children who grew up in this country, and who go to the same school you once went to.”

Many of his colleagues, who see the issue in the abstract, he said, think enforcement is the whole answer.

“They thought if we only enforce the law, people will self-deport,” said Coffman, who succeeded Rep. Tom Tancredo, who made the war on illegal immigrants a centerpiece of his campaigns. “It’s not going to happen. The solution is not the status quo, or deportation when you’re talking about breaking up families.”


Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.