At a closed-door GOP Conference meeting April 10, Rep. Lou Barletta went up to the microphones for the first time since he was elected to Congress in 2010.
The Pennsylvania Republican told colleagues about his unique experience as a mayor trying to deal with increased crime and strains on city services as the population of Hazleton, Pa., swelled by 50 percent because of an influx of illegal immigrants.
“The emergency room in the hospital, the wait time began to increase to six, seven, eight hours. If you follow illegal immigration this is not uncommon because illegal immigrants will use the emergency room for primary health care because you can’t be refused and you can’t ask whether you’re in the country legally or illegally. So they’ll use the emergency room from hangnail to heart attack,” Barletta said in an interview the next day in his Cannon office.
Barletta approached the Justice Department seeking help, but all he received was a mug, which he keeps in a display case in his office, a lapel pin and a “pat on the back.”
Barletta came to the nation’s attention in 2006 by vowing to make Hazleton, an old Pennsylvania coal town, one of the toughest places for illegal immigrants to live in the United States.
Now, in the House, the sophomore lawmaker is one of the most stalwart opponents of the “comprehensive” immigration bill that bipartisan legislators are crafting in secret. But while he has maintained his staunch views on the topic, so far he is picking a fight on process, rather than substance.
“Alarmingly, there appears to be a rush to force legislation to the floor of the House of Representatives without going through the committee process,” Barletta wrote in an April 10 letter to House leaders obtained by CQ Roll Call.
“Americans already hold a severe distrust of Congress as an institution. To purposefully give the citizens further proof of Washington’s disdain for their interest would be immensely arrogant and needlessly disrespectful.”
The next day, Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam privately assured Barletta that any immigration legislation would go through relevant committees, a sentiment echoed by key Republicans such as Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford of Oklahoma in interviews.
But the episode is illustrative of how the immigration bill’s process could be the most delicate part of passing it.
On the one hand, proponents are terrified of letting the bill sit out in the open to be picked apart in the media. But efforts to fast-track the process could only add to suspicion from grass-roots opponents.
“Process is a very big deal. People have to be heard. People were elected here to be legislators not just voters. And so they have to be involved in the process,” Lankford said.
“I’m a big fan of open process and regular order. I personally would like to come up through the committees of oversight and then go to the floor and let the House wield its way,” said Rep. Steve Southerland II, R-Fla., the sophomore class representative.
Seven years ago, Hazleton passed a law to prohibit businesses from hiring illegal immigrants and landlords from accepting them as tenants, but a court quickly struck it down.
Barletta said that the lawsuit was filed by illegal immigrants who lived in his city and that the judge in the case agreed to shield their identities to protect them from arrest and possible deportation.
“I never saw our accusers. I don’t know their names. I believe that the judge gave illegal aliens more rights than a United States citizen would have,” Barletta said.
Barletta noted that Homeland Security officials say they are already observing an increase in people crossing the border as Congress talks about providing a path to citizenship for people who are already here. And he is firm in his positions on the harm that illegal immigration causes and how pessimistic he is that any new bill will actually secure the border.
But, like other opponents of a comprehensive bill of late, he is surprisingly defensive, seeming to have internalized criticisms in the press as well as the momentum among Republicans to pass a bill.
“Many times, when you take the position like I do, people will say, ‘Well, that’s anti- immigrant.’ I’m probably the strongest voice for immigrants in America! If you’re an immigrant here in the United States, I don’t think it’s good to bring 20 million people here to take your job away from you. You came here for an opportunity. We are stealing the opportunities away from immigrants,” Barletta said.
“We are where we are with the momentum in the Republican Party,” Iowa Rep. Steve King, another strong opponent of illegal immigration, said at a recent pen-and-pad with reporters. “That momentum was started by people who wanted to make an excuse, I believe, for the election results that they had promised would be otherwise.”
There are differing opinions on how far the momentum will take the issue, however.
“The media says it’s a train that’s already left the station. I’m not so sure of that,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said.