WASHINGTON — Republicans in the House of Representatives kicked off their first hearing on immigration Tuesday with a stated goal of harmonizing the principles of humanity and the rule of the law.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee met after a wave of comprehensive immigration proposals from President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators calling for a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants now residing in the United States.
But Tuesday’s gathering emphasized how many House Republicans still oppose granting a path to citizenship, which several committee members referred to as “amnesty.”
“The question of the day,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., was whether there were any signs of compromise between the “extremes of mass deportation and path to citizenship.”
“America is a nation of immigrants,” he said. “Everyone among us can go back a few or several generations to our own relatives who came to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families. But we are also a nation of laws.”
Julian Castro, the Democratic mayor of San Antonio, testified on behalf of a path to citizenship.
He cited the hearing as a further example that the country is “on the cusp of real progress.” But he warned lawmakers that any plan that doesn’t include a path to citizenship risks creating a class of “second-class noncitizens.”
Castro joined seven other experts on immigration who spoke about proposals to rework the laws, attract more high-skilled immigrant workers and improve border security.
Julie Myers Wood, a former head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said any new legislation must consist of stronger employment-verification systems and improve the resources of agencies that were charged with enforcing immigration laws. “If we’re going to do this again, we’ve got to get enforcement right and get it right from the get-go, or otherwise will be in this situation again,” she said.
As the meeting got under way, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, praised the ongoing efforts of Senate and House bipartisan groups that are working on immigration proposals and he advised members to take their time.
“This is not about being in a hurry,” he said. “This is about trying to get it right on behalf of the American people and those who are suffering under an immigration system that doesn’t work very well for anybody.”
Several members of the House bipartisan immigration group are also on the Judiciary Committee, including Democrats Zoe Lofgren of California and Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, along with Republican Raúl Labrador of Idaho. Other House members of the immigration group include Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra of California.
“We need to be fair to the millions of Americans who want to follow the rule of law,” Labrador said during the hearing. “We need to be fair to the millions of people who are waiting in line to come legally into the United States. And I think we need to be fair to the 11 million or so that are in the United States illegally.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, cited his concerns and those of other Republicans about repeating the mistakes of the so-called amnesty legislation of 1986.
That law, signed by President Ronald Reagan, also promised to grant legal status to illegal immigrants, secure the borders and beef up worker verification protections. But the enforcement protections were largely unmet, and millions more illegal immigrants flooded into the United States.
“In the minds of many, Mr. Chairman, the country got amnesty, but we’re still waiting 25 years later on the border security and employment verification,” Gowdy said. “So here we are back again asking our fellow citizens to trust us.”
Obama, who’s said he’d like to see immigration legislation passed by June , met Tuesday with immigrant advocates and labor leaders _ including the AFL-CIO, the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza _ for about an hour at the White House. Attendees declined to release details of their conversations, but they described them as productive.
“We were very clear with the president that what we are demanding is a road to citizenship that is clear, that is direct and that is not contingent at all on additional enforcement, whether it’s border security or additional types of enforcement,” said Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
Inside the crowded House hearing room, a group of young immigrants disrupted the hearing by jumping up with signs and chanting, “Undocumented and unafraid.”
Leticia Tudon, 21, of Dallas told McClatchy that it’s important for members of Congress to hear from the students.
“If we want our point to be heard, we have to speak out,” she said.
The Senate will hold its first hearing on immigration Feb. 13.
Anita Kumar contributed to this article.
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