Immigration reform is on the move in the Senate, but you’d never know it from watching the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Members examined a new bill from Republican Congressmen Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, chair of the Immigration Subcommittee, that sounded an awful lot like the party’s approach to the issue before they were routed by Latino voters in 2012. The enforcement-only SAFE Act’s primary effect would be to empower local and state police to enforce immigration law–a policy that sparked a backlash in states like Arizona and Alabama as Latino and civil rights groups complained it encouraged racial profiling.
Witnesses included Sabine Durden, who described how her son was killed after being hit by an undocumented immigrant driver, and Jamiel Shaw, who recounted how his son was murdered by an “illegal alien gang member from Mexico.” Their testimony provoked a testy exchange between Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson and Republican Raul Labrador over whether the witnesses were being exploited to “arouse passions and prejudices against illegal immigrants,” as Johnson put it.
The hearing was representative of the House GOP’s internal struggle over just how to approach the issue. Members are torn between giving in to national GOP leaders who warn of a demographic apocalypse for the party without a plausible immigration reform bill, and their conservative constituents, many of whom are hostile to any approach short of deportation. Several of the Republicans who praised the SAFE Act on Thursday have also expressed sympathy for immigration legislation that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including Labrador, who until recently was working on a bipartisan reform bill before bailing on negotiations.
Goodlatte suggested that these two approaches were not at odds–from a policy perspective, if not politically. “Any real immigration effort must guarantee that our laws be enforced following a legalization program,” he said.
It’s up to Speaker John Boehner to figure out how to manage the dueling instincts within his caucus. So far he’s keeping his options open, nodding towards an eventual immigration bill of some kind. And if he needed a reminder of the political implications for the party’s future, a 29-state poll sponsored by three pro-reform groups–Republicans For Immigration Reform, Partnership For A New American Economy, and Alliance For Citizenship–this week found strong support for reform, including among GOP voters.
In the meantime, Democrats on the committee Thursday made clear they were dismayed at the direction things were heading.
“I was hoping that we had turned a corner on this flawed approach because we’ve tried it before,” Democrat John Conyers of Michigan said in his opening remarks.
Congressman Luis Gutierrez, one of the Democrats in the bipartisan group working on a reform bill, described Gowdy’s and Goodlatte’s approach as a legislative dead end.
“It takes 218 votes,” he said. “What are we going to do, have this fight again? We’ve seen this before.”