“This is not about being in a hurry, this 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,” Boehner said.
Committee Democrats said that they are not considering a blanket amnesty, but rather a lengthy process that would involve illegal immigrants paying back taxes and fees. A set of guiding principles released by the Senate working group last week emphasized that undocumented people would only get citizenship once the border is secure, a provision meant to appease Republican objections.
“What we’re saying is over some period of time that’s arduous, you might gain legal permanent residence in the United States and then if you pay thousands of dollars, learn everything there is to know about the American government, learn English so well you can pass the test and then swear you can defend the Constitution and be willing to fight for your country, only in that case could you become an American citizen,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the ranking member on the immigration subcommittee.
President Barack Obama met with business and immigrant advocacy groups Tuesday and repeated his commitment that any immigration overhaul should include a route to citizenship for undocumented people.
Republicans at Tuesday’s hearing also said that Congress should tackle an immigration overhaul in pieces, rather than putting a comprehensive, contentious bill on the floor. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said the first piece of that incremental legislating should grant more permanent residency visas to high-tech foreign workers whose skills are in demand by American employers. That would prevent an argument over the “toxic” question of citizenship from killing other changes to immigration laws, he said.
“Let’s not let the more contentious issue and this idea of comprehensive reform prevent us from this year, this month, passing something to address what is a horrible situation in this country,” Bachus said. “We’re training people to go back to their country and compete against us.”
Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the full committee’s ranking member, insisted that any immigration overhaul should be comprehensive and grant citizenship while also strengthening the border.
“The notion of comprehensive immigration [legislation] has been pushed around and bandied about, but the fact of the matter is that this is one big challenge that I don’t think we can handle on a piecemeal basis,” Conyers said. “My experience with this subject tells me that with 10 or 11 million undocumented people living among us, we’ve got to approach this in terms of a more holistic way.”
Gowdy and Goodlatte also said Congress should not repeat what they see as the mistakes of the 1986 immigration law, the last major overhaul to be enacted. While that law granted amnesty to undocumented people, they said it did not deliver the tougher border security and employer sanction measures it promised.
“Are we serious about border security and employment certification?” Gowdy asked. “Are we serious about making this the last time we have this conversation, or are we simply playing political games with people’s lives and undercutting the rule of law, which ironically is the very reason they come to this country in the first place? We shall see.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.