As Summer Heated Up, House GOP's Immigration Hearings Lost Sizzle

With immigration reform legislation stalled indefinitely, the congressional hearings on the issue that attracted overflow crowds around the Fourth of July have now fizzled with disinterest leading into Labor Day.

Most Americans paid little attention to the two dozen House hearings held around the country during the last two months. Many families have been on vacation, and the news has been dominated by war in the Middle East, the foiled terror plot in London and an arrest in the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation.

"People don't pay attention to these things, except the C-SPAN junkies," said Gary Jacobson, an expert in congressional politics at the University of California, San Diego. "It's not surprising that it's fizzled."

Democrats and immigrant groups have questioned the need for the hearings because such meetings are typically held before legislation is passed — not after. Critics call the hearings an election-year tactic to delay negotiations on the competing immigration bills passed by the House and Senate.

Many House members have shown waning interest in the meetings, preferring to campaign during the August recess or go on vacation, Jacobson said.

A hearing in San Diego drew just two congressmen, even though it is a border city often described as a crucible of immigration politics. Another gathering in Dalton, Ga., attracted just three representatives.

A sparsely attended hearing in El Paso, Texas, was held in the dark and rebroadcast on C-SPAN with a note reading: "This hearing was held in a theater with lighting problems."

Another gathering scheduled for Friday in upstate New York was canceled with one week's notice. A spokesman for the Judiciary Committee blamed logistical difficulties getting members to the meeting from a panel in Concord, N.H., that took place the previous day.

Some Republicans consider the hearings a success.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the meetings allowed lawmakers "to hear testimony from local people, as well as to talk with them informally."

But even some who agree with the House GOP's hardline stance against illegal immigration gave mixed reviews to the hearings, which generally involved Homeland Security officials, academics and activists discussing the issue.

Ron De Jong, spokesman for the activist group, said he would have liked more accessible venues and an opportunity for audience members to speak.

"I would have provided a forum for citizens to speak," De Jong said. "Give them 90 seconds."

House GOP leaders called the hearings to highlight differences between the enforcement-only bill that the House passed in December and a Senate bill approved in May, which would establish a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for many who are in the country illegally.

The first hearing outside Washington, held at a Border Patrol station in San Diego, attracted a host of lawmakers and an overflow crowd of more than 200 people. At the time, many lawmakers hoped for hearings in their home districts.

Hearings were scheduled as far afield as Yuma, Ariz., Evansville, Ind., Hamilton, Mont., and Selfridge Air National Guard base, near Detroit.

The final House panel is Sept. 1 in Dubuque, Iowa. The Senate has also held some hearings.

As lawmakers prepare to reconvene after Labor Day, prospects for a compromise are cloudy.

Two conservative Republicans, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., proposed a bill in late July that they hoped would start negotiations between the House and Senate.

The bill would set up privately run "Ellis Island" centers outside the United States. Illegal immigrants would have to leave the country and apply at the centers to return on work visas. But those would not operate until after the president has certified to Congress that the border is secure.