Enforcement-Only Immigration Hearing In House Interrupted By Protesters

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., sponsor of the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, left, talks with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., on Capitol Hill.

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., sponsor of the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, left, talks with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., on Capitol Hill.  (AP)

More than a dozen protesters interrupted a hearing on a tough enforcement-focused immigration bill Tuesday in the U.S. House of Representatives with chants of “shame! shame!” – bringing the proceedings to a halt.

A key committee in the Republican-led House moved toward approving the controversial bill opposed by Democrats and immigrant advocates. Protesters wore signs that said “Remember November," a reference to the loss of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in part, some experts say, to the party's hard line on immigration.

The House Judiciary Committee was meeting to consider the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. It would empower state and local officials to enforce federal immigration laws, make passport and visa fraud into aggravated felonies subject to deportation, funnel money into building more detention centers and crack down on immigrants suspected of posing dangers.

Those who back more lenient provisions dealing with undocumented immigrants assailed some of the Republicans in Congress for what they described as putting roadblocks to bipartisan steps to reforming the immigration system.

As soon as Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., opened the hearing, more than a dozen protesters who had been seated in the hearing room stood up and began clapping and chanting, "Shame, shame, shame! More of the same!" They were ushered out but their cries could still be heard in the hallway and Goodlatte stopped the proceedings until authorities escorted them out.

Goodlatte said that the bill under consideration – the first immigration bill to come to a vote in a House committee this year – "provides a robust interior enforcement strategy that will maintain the integrity of our immigration system for the long term."

But Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., an immigrant advocate, said that "this bill must be opposed, it would turn millions of undocumented immigrants into criminals overnight." She predicted mass protests were the bill to become law, along the lines of what happened in 2006 after the House passed a similarly tough enforcement bill.

The move by the House Judiciary Committee comes less than two weeks after the full House voted to overturn Obama's 2012 election-year order to stop deportations of many immigrants brought here illegally as youths.

Together, the two moves highlight the challenges ahead in getting a comprehensive immigration bill through Congress this year, as Obama wants. For many House conservatives, the priorities when it comes to immigration remain enforcing the laws and securing the border, not allowing the millions here illegally to gain legal status or citizenship.

Meanwhile in the Senate, a Republican lawmaker floated a compromise border security proposal he hopes can win over support for sweeping immigration legislation under consideration there.

And on a day of fast-paced developments on an issue that is a top priority for President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, moved to quiet speculation that he might bring the Senate immigration legislation up for a vote despite opposition from many conservatives in his chamber.

"Any immigration reform bill that is going to go into law ought to have a majority of both parties' support if we're really serious about making that happen. And so I don't see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn't have a majority support of Republicans," Boehner said. 

He added that border enforcement would be key for any immigration bill, "And I frankly think the Senate bill is weak on border security."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, one of the most vocal proponents in Congress for providing a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, pointed criticism for the GOP in a speech from the House floor.

“Most Republicans in this body – up until a few weeks ago – were singing from a new and more harmonious hymnal,” said a transcript of his speech. “Police and local governments want immigrants in their community to be able to call the police if they are the victim of crime or are witnesses to crime? Too bad. Republicans in Washington know better than your cops, prosecutors and mayors at home. They will cut your federal funding unless you commit to full-frontal deportation and local immigration enforcement.”

Advocacy groups warned that hard-line Republican moves on immigration would come back to haunt the GOP in elections.

“As long as Republicans seek to treat us as criminals and destroy our families, we will continue to mobilize, organize, register, and turn out voters, until the last anti-family extremist has been voted out of office," said Angelica Salas, Executive Director, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

Border security also is at issue in the Democratic-led Senate, where senators have been jousting over how to strengthen the provisions in a far-reaching bill being considered on the floor this week to remake the nation's immigration laws. At the heart of the bill is a 13-year path to citizenship for people now here illegally, but it is contingent on certain border security goals being met.

Republican critics say those "triggers" are too weak and have been demanding amendments to strengthen them. The Senate planned to vote Tuesday on an amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., requiring 700 miles of double-layered border fencing before anyone here illegally could get a permanent resident green card.

A more far-reaching proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has been getting attention, but Democrats and some Republicans have dismissed it as a "poison pill" because it would require 90 percent of people attempting to cross the border to be stopped before anyone here illegally could get a permanent resident green card.

The underlying bill also has the 90 percent figure as a goal, but doesn't make the path to citizenship directly contingent on achieving it.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told The Associated Press Monday night that he has been working on an alternative with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and others. Hoeven said his proposal also would require the 90 percent apprehension rate to be met before immigrants could get green cards. But he said his plan, unlike Cornyn's amendment, would make the 90 percent rate objective and achievable by specifying all the equipment and technology the border patrol says it needs to achieve the rate in each of the nine Southwest border sectors, and carefully tracking attempted crossings.

Hoeven said he hoped to unveil his amendment in the next day or two and said it could garner the support needed to get bipartisan support for the immigration bill.

"Our effort is to get good legislation that truly secures the border," Hoeven said. "That people feel it's fair and it's not amnesty ... so we can get really a bipartisan consensus."

However, Hoeven's amendment could encounter skepticism from immigrant groups and Democrats who want to be sure that the bill doesn't change in a way that makes the path to citizenship harder to achieve.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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