Senate Panel Tackles Immigration Print
Wednesday, 13 February 2013 17:54

By Published: February 13, 2013

WASHINGTON — The day after President Obama reiterated his call for an overhaul of immigration laws in the State of the Union address, the Senate Judiciary Committee — which will likely put its own stamp on any immigration bill to reach its conference room — is set to hold its first hearing on the topic on Wednesday.

The consensus on Capitol Hill and among those on both sides of the immigration debate is that the Senate will have to lead the charge when it comes to creating and passing any meaningful changes to the country’s immigration system, and Wednesday’s hearing will be closely watched, a first glimpse of how the issue will play out in the upper chamber. A bipartisan group of eight senators has spent recent weeks working on immigration legislation.

“I’d like something that faces reality,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the Judiciary Committee’s chairman. “We have 12 million people in this country that are undocumented — that’s a reality. It’s not going to be like they’re all going to leave. One of the reasons I’m holding this hearing in the morning is to hear from somebody who actually understands what’s involved here — Janet Napolitano — and I hope that from what she says and what we hear from her, we can start building some consensus.”

Ms. Napolitano is the homeland security secretary, and her department has jurisdiction over immigration enforcement matters.

Though the bipartisan group released a broad set of immigration principles last month, they have yet to introduce any actual legislation and aides have said they are unlikely to litigate their continuing internal discussions in public during the hearing. But Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and a member of the group, said he expected the hearing to strike an optimistic tone.

“I think on this issue more than any other we’re going to see sort of a bipartisan longing to get something done, and hopefully you’re not going to find the fisticuffs that you would find on lots of other issues,” Mr. Schumer said. “I think you’ll be able to glean a sense of progress without us revealing the specifics.”

In his address on Tuesday, the president once again framed an overhaul as an effort that would strengthen economic growth, because he said it would “harness the talents and ingenuity” of immigrants.

Mr. Obama reiterated that he wanted “a responsible pathway to earned citizenship” for illegal immigrants, although he did not get into the weeds of specifying how many of the millions of those immigrants in the country would get legal status. He said illegal immigrants would have to pass background checks, pay back taxes and a fine, learn English and go to the back of the line behind immigrants who have tried to come to the United States legally.

In his brief comments, Mr. Obama also said that reform should include “strong border security.”

Mr. Leahy has strong feelings about what should be included in any immigration legislation to come through his committee, including favoring protections for immigrants in same same-sex relationships and creating a path to lawful permanent residence for illegal immigrants, who could then choose to pursue citizenship. He also supports putting forward a comprehensive bill rather than several smaller pieces of legislation. Some Republicans have cautioned that including provisions like the one dealing with same-sex couples could doom the legislation, and many would accept legal status only if certain border security “triggers” are first met.

“I intend to have protections for the L.G.B.T. community in there,” Mr. Leahy said, referring to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. “I’m not going to make choices between that community and the non-L.G.B.T. community.”

Mr. Leahy also supports the Dream Act, which offers a path to legal status for young illegal immigrants who receive college degrees or serve in the military.

On the question of a path to citizenship, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and ranking member of the committee, said that while “it’s perfectly all right” for Mr. Leahy to want legalization and citizenship, the real question in his mind remains, “Is the border secure?”

“The pathway is entirely tied to the issue of border security,” Mr. Grassley said. “You can’t have a pathway to legalization until the border is secure.”

President Obama unveiled his own proposal for an immigration overhaul last month, and though Republicans, and even some Democrats, have said they fear that any plan by the president could derail the current efforts in Congress to reach a bipartisan consensus, Mr. Leahy said he welcomed any input from Mr. Obama.

When asked on C-SPAN last month how he expected immigration to make its way through is committee, Mr. Leahy replied, “One, if the president does send up specific language, that will make it easier, ‘cause we’ll work from that. May not accept all of it, may add to it, but at least we’d have something to work off of so that would be, that would be very helpful.”

In his speech on immigration last month, Mr. Obama said that he would include measures to protect same-sex couples, and Mr. Leahy plans to reintroduce the Uniting American Families Act in the Senate, which would grant same-sex immigrant couples the same rights as heterosexual ones.

Last week, a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the same topic carved out clear dividing lines between House Democrats and Republicans over how to handle the millions of immigrants already in the country illegally. Many House Republicans stopped short of a path to citizenship — which their Democratic counterparts favor — and instead offered up what they said was a middle-ground option that would include only legal residency. They also made clear that they were open to breaking any immigration legislation into smaller pieces, another option most Democrats oppose.

The House hearing devoted ample time to issues of border security and enforcement, a topic that will come up in the Senate’s hearing, as well. The first panel consists of just one witness, Ms. Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, who will likely address enforcement concerns. (When the bipartisan group in the Senate laid out their broad immigration principles earlier this month, they made securing the borders a prerequisite for any other immigration overhaul, and in a news conference a few days later, Mr. Schumer said that the Department of Homeland Security would likely be tasked with determining when the borders were secure.)

The witness list for the hearing also offers a window into some of the inherent conflicts with which members of the Senate will struggle as they try to tackle a solution for the nation’s broken immigration system. In addition to Ms. Napolitano, witnesses include Chris Crane, president of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents’ union, and Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American, which seeks to influence the dialogue in favor of immigration changes; Mr. Crane and other ICE agents sued Ms. Napolitano in federal court in Texas claiming that the Department of Homeland Security was ordering them not to deport young illegal immigrants and threatening them with disciplinary action if they tried to enforce the law, and Mr. Vargas, who was sent to the country illegally when he was 12, is one of the illegal immigrants Mr. Crane is tasked with deporting.

Other issues to which Mr. Leahy remains committed, aides said, include protecting refugees and ensuring that diary farmers are protected under any agriculture worker program. Mr. Grassley, meanwhile, has said that he wants to make sure the senators have learned lessons from 1986 — the last time such a broad immigration overhaul passed — like border security, as well as how to deal with the future flow of legal immigrants, especially highly skilled workers.

“I’ve got this institutional memory that I want to remind people of past mistakes,” Mr. Grassley said. “The real one was being naïve to think that you could do it once and for all.”


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