Congressional Hearings Threaten Senate Immigration Bill

House Republican leaders are scheduling a new round of immigration hearings, saying three already held have strengthened their case for enforcement-heavy legislation.

Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday the hearings have made clear that a Senate bill that opens an avenue toward citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants would undermine border security.

He contended that members of both parties are moving toward the House position that the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants should be offered no guarantees against being deported.

"I think the hearings have been an absolute success, and they've put us in a stronger position to craft a responsible bill that secures our borders and strictly enforces our immigration laws," Boehner said.

Last week's House hearings were in Laredo, Texas, San Diego and Washington. Senators held a hearing last week in Philadelphia and one on Monday in Miami; witnesses generally supported the position held by the Senate and President Bush that many illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S.

At a hearing Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Bush wants a comprehensive bill. He said an approach of only enforcement does not encourage immigrants to learn English, assimilate or be part of society.

"The more this issue becomes one of enforcement only, we're driving them farther and farther underground. What we want for our national security is to drive them above the shadows so we know who they are," said Gutierrez, who left his native Cuba in 1960 as a political refugee.

During last week's congressional recess, some lawmakers suggested a compromise could be forming around "triggers" that would allow a phasing in of guest worker or legalization measures after enforcement benchmarks are met.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said such "delays" already are in the Senate bill. A guest worker program for illegal immigrants could begin only after money has been appropriated for a system that employers could use to verify their workers are legal, he said.

"We may not be so very far apart," Specter suggested.

Seven new House hearings are scheduled, all but one in Washington. The House International Relations Committee will hold a hearing July 27 at a location to be determined on whether the Senate bill undermines diplomatic efforts to curb illegal immigration.

The other six hearings are scheduled from July 18 to July 27.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the authors of the Senate bill, said that while Bush as stood up to the "Republican right wing," his party's leaders in the House continue to play politics with the issue.

"Clearly, the House hearings are more about politics than about serious immigration reform," Kennedy said.