At First Senate Hearing on Immigration Reform, Senators Seem Split Between A Pathway to CItizenship and More Enforcement

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Washington, D.C., February 12, 2013 -- Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on comprehensive immigration reform and heard from those who are supportive of immigration reform and a clear path to citizenship and those who seemed focused on further ratcheting up border enforcement resources.

In his opening statement, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, urged Congress to adhere to the president’s call to act swiftly on immigration reform and warned of the danger of speaking in terms of enforcement only, ABC News reported.

“Despite all our efforts and all our progress, there are some stuck in the past who are repeating the demands of enforcement first. I fear that they mean enforcement only. To them I say, this has stalled immigration reform for far too long. We’ve effectively done enforcement first and enforcement only. It is time to proceed to comprehensive action to bring families out of the shadows,” Leahy said.  “The president’s right. Now is the time.”

When immigration reform efforts were attempted in 2006 and 2007, efforts to offer a pathway to citizenship failed but federal resources were significantly increased to: boost the number of border patrol agents and increase apprehensions and deportations, extend the border fence and create additional criminal penalties for being undocumented.

Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, the first panelist at the hearing, detailed the drastically ramped up expenditure on immigration enforcement and called for a common-sense approach to immigration reform.

“Our immigration system is not working. Our communities, workers and employers are all frustrated by a system that treats a drug smuggler the same as a high-achieving student, undercuts honest employers and leaves millions in fear of deportation and vulnerable to fraud and other crimes,” Napolitano said, according to ABC News.  “We have tried before to reform this system. We have been unsuccessful because those efforts failed to address the root of the problem and in some cases directly contributed to the situation we find ourselves in today.”

Tuesday’s hearing came on the heels of President Obama’s State of The Union Speech in which he urged Congress to send him a comprehensive immigration bill.

Napolitano’s testimony Wednesday focused heavily on how the administration had ramped up enforcement in the last several years. The “border is now more secure than ever,” she said, noting that there was a record-level of deportations last year, which exceeded 400,000.

The number of border patrol agents has more than doubled to 21,000 and attempts to cross the border have declined.

However, the increase in border enforcement expenditure, which Napolitano noted exceeds the expense on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, was not sufficient for some Republican senators.

Republican Sen. Jeff sessions criticized the Obama administration saying that if it had done more for “border enforcement” the Senate would be prepared to go further with immigration reform.

Other Republican senators implied the desire to have complete “operational control,” which would mean that no one is ever able to cross the border undetected.

The only undocumented person to testify was Jose Antonio Vargas, a well-known journalist who went public about being undocumented a few years ago.

Vargas tearfully told the senators: “I come to you as one of our country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of us Americans at heart, but without the right papers to show for it.”

 “Too often, we're treated as abstractions, faceless and nameless, visibly invisible, mere subjects of debate rather than as individuals with families, hopes, fears, and dreams,” said Vargas.

Vargas called on people to stop calling undocumented people illegal.

“I am the only one in my extended family of 25 Americans who is undocumented,” Vargas said. “When you inaccurately call me “illegal”­­no human being is illegal­­you’re not only dehumanizing me, you’re dehumanizing them.”

Protesters interrupted the hearing three times, and at one point, a woman waved a flag reading “No More deportations” as she was escorted out of the room, ABC News reported.

Rights Working Group is working to ensure that immigratoin reform legislation includes a ban on racial proifling and inappropriate use of force. You can take action here by telling members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the ban must be in the legislation they're writing.