WASHINGTON – House Republicans remain determined to take a “step-by-step” approach to the problem of illegal immigration and appear disinclined to develop wide-ranging legislation in the manner of the Senate.
Two committees in the lower chamber tackled different aspects of the immigration debate on Tuesday, each expressing interest in developing and moving their own bill. The House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security looked into the issue of immigrant children brought illegally into the U.S. by their parents who remain without proper documentation. Meanwhile, the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security broached ways to tighten the leaky boundary between the U.S. and Mexico.
The sessions came on the heels of comments made over the weekend by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who said on CBS television’s Face the Nation that the House intends to deal with immigration “in a common-sense, step-by-step approach. We want to deal with this in chunks, chunks that the members can deal with and grapple with and frankly chunks that the American people can get their arms around.”
Boehner rejected the Senate-passed immigration reform bill, insisting it failed to appropriately address border security problems. Otherwise, he refused to express his personal views on the issue, nor would he predict “what’s going to be on the floor and what isn’t going to be on the floor.” And he rejected the idea of “1,300-page bills that no one has read.”
Essentially, Boehner and most members of the GOP caucus have adopted the approach of Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which will handle most of the immigration legislation, who has counseled a deliberate approach that doesn’t result in one massive bill. Regardless, whatever emerges – if anything — will ultimately be fashioned by a House-Senate conference committee.
“The House is committed to moving forward with a step-by-step process, with proper deliberation and debate surrounding each piece of reform,” said Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). “It is important that we do this right – proving to the American people the federal government can be trusted to build a lasting system that cannot simply be put aside because it is unworkable or the political will is simply not present to make it work.”
At the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, Goodlatte hinted that those illegal immigrants brought here as children will be “considered from a different perspective” than those who crossed the border on their own free will.
“Many of them know no other home than the U.S., having grown up as Americans since they were toddlers in some instances,” Goodlatte said. “They surely don’t share the culpability of their parents.”
At the same time, Goodlatte said the immigrants who illegally entered the U.S. carrying their children should merit no special consideration.
“Because let’s be clear – parents bringing their young children to the U.S. illegally is not something we want to encourage,” he said. “Not only because it would lead to continued illegal immigration, but also because illegally crossing the border is dangerous.”
Goodlatte also said any legislation should be crafted to prohibit undocumented youths who have joined gangs, been involved in criminal activity or “otherwise shown that they do not intend to be productive members of American society” from becoming permanent residents.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) told the subcommittee that he has introduced the Enlist Act, which authorizes illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. as children to enlist in the armed forces, providing a way for young people in the country illegally to be lawfully admitted for permanent residence by reason of their honorable service.
“For the many thousands of young undocumented immigrants who graduate from our public and private high schools each year, military service would offer an avenue for them to serve the U.S. and earn a legal status in the country they love,” Denham said. “These recruits would provide the military departments with a talent pool of young men and women, many of whom would have strategically valuable language and cultural competencies.”
Barrett Duke, a member of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, agreed that illegal immigrants brought here as children merit special consideration.
“These are people who did not make a conscious decision to break the nation’s immigration laws,” he said. “They were brought here as minors. This is the only life they know. It is likely that they identify more with this country and its culture than they do with the country and culture from which their parents brought them. This is their home. Our country should not hold these children accountable for the choices their parents made.”
At the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security meeting, Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the panel chairwoman, said border security is an essential element of the immigration debate “so that in 10 years or 15 years we do not need to debate again and again.”
“We need to reduce the flow of people coming to this country illegally,” she said. “This includes those who sneak across the border, across the desert, and those who overstay their visas. This is more than an immigration issue; it’s a national security issue.”
Miller said she was “disappointed” in the Senate border security plan, which costs $46 billion, continues to build a border fence and almost doubles the number of border patrol agents.
“I think without outcome-based metrics, accountability or a standard for success with real teeth, the Senate bill is more of the same – it’s a Washington solution and that will not deliver results,” she said. “I do think that additional resources will be needed to achieve situational awareness, operational control of the border and enhance security at the ports of entry. But just spending additional resources without a strategy to secure the border or means to hold Department of Homeland Security accountable for a result creates conditions that are ripe for waste.”
Miller instead touted a bill, the Border Security Results Act of 2013, which passed out of the committee in May but has yet to come to the floor. The bill directs the secretary of Homeland Security to issue a report every 180 days on the status of operational control of the nation’s international borders and achieve situational awareness of those borders within two years.
“This bill is about accountability and real results because DHS’ border components must be held to account for success or failure, progress or not,” she said. “And this bill is the right way to move forward. We can and must secure the border – the American people deserve no less.”
Richard Stana, former director for homeland security and justice at the Government Accountability Office, told the subcommittee that border security requires a holistic approach.
For example, Stana said, estimates show that 40 to 50 percent of the illegal immigrant population is composed of people who entered the U.S. legally and overstayed their visa. Visa overstays are the responsibility of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, not Customs and Border Protection. But, as a result of higher priorities, ICE devotes relatively few resources to address the problem.
“To what extent might the broader illegal immigrant problem be addressed by devoting more resources to interior enforcement rather than substantially increasing the size of the Border Patrol?” Stana asked.
He also noted illegal immigrants often are drawn to the U.S. to find employment. Many eventually find jobs with employers who have come to rely on this labor pool with little likelihood of incurring fines and sanctions provided by law, again owing to ICE resource constraints and priorities.
“To what extent could additional resources applied to worksite enforcement address illegal immigration as opposed to additional resources applied to the Border Patrol?” he asked. “Achieving an appropriate balance between border and interior enforcement resources could help create a credible framework for deterring those considering illegal entry and overstay.”