The history of immigration reform in the United States has shown that Congressional committees and their chairs often play a key role in determining whether legislation makes it to the floor, and the nature of that legislation. This is certainly true now that immigration reform is high on the agenda for both political parties, and the President in particular. Over the last few weeks both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held their first hearing on immigration reform. Both committees focused on immigration reform, but the people who testified are a good indicator of the direction that the legislation will likely go in each house.
The House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on Tuesday, February 5th, well before the Senate Judiciary Committee which held its first hearing on Wednesday, February 13th. Although expectations are that the Senate will be first to introduce a bill, it’s clear that the House intends to play a key role in the upcoming debate as well. The hearing was titled “America’s Immigration System: Opportunities for Legal Immigration and Enforcement of Laws against Illegal Immigration.” The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, has a record of opposing any kind of “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants and the list of witnesses for this first hearing was a clear indicator that it will be a tough road for those pushing for amnesty and a path to citizenship. Witnesses like Michael Teitelbaum of the Sloan Foundation, Chris Crane from an ICE employee union, Julie Meyers Wood a former Bush era ICE administrator and Jessica Vaughn of the Center for Immigration Studies are considered to be opposed to immigration reform (article), and focused on border security and the pitfalls of the 1986 amnesty and immigration reform. Only one witness was considered to be coming from a pro-reform perspective, Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio, TX, but Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute presented material which supported the administration’s contention that an “enforcement first” set of policies has already put the country on the path to a secure border. Several House members sounded skeptical of a broad, comprehensive bill and some have called for a focus on less contentious issues such as skilled migration. It is clear that border security will be a crucial issue alongside legalization.
The Senate judiciary committee’s hearing, led by Democrat and comprehensive immigration reform proponent Patrick Leahy of Vermont, was held a week after the House hearing. The Chairman opened the hearing by stating “In my view it is time to pass a good bill, a fair bill, a comprehensive bill ... Too many have been waiting too long for fairness." On the Republican side, Sen. John Cornyn ofTexas, said the focus must be border security, "I do not believe the border is secure and I still believe we have a long, long way to go” (see article). The simple hearing title “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” belied the many issues discussed during the hearing such as border enforcement, legalization, employer sanctions, skilled migration, and even shouting protestors calling for an end to deportations. The first witness was Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who made an argument for the administration’s enforcement efforts. The Senate witness list also included Chris Crane and Jessica Vaughn, however, there were many clear distinctions from the House hearing – one of the main witnesses, for example, was Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant whose story of being brought to the U.S. as a child has galvanized the immigration reform movement since he made his story public in a New York Times magazine article in June of 2011. The Senate committee also heard from Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza and Steve Case, an advocate for increased skilled migration.The differences in these two hearings make clear the challenges that an immigration reform bill will face in getting through Congress. The administration has “leaked” a copy of its immigration reform program (see article), and it’s clear that the White House will be ready to move forward with a bill if nothing is forthcoming from the House or Senate (Senator Marco Rubio has already called the administration's proposal "dead on arrival"). It seems that a bill which the administration can support is more likely to come from the Senate, and that a bill that includes a path to citizenship is unlikely to make it out of the House judiciary committee. However, only time will tell, and future hearings will be indicators of the direction that legislation is going. I will continue to watch the witness lists…
Jose Antonio Vargas testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee