House Debate on Immigration Kicks Off With Focus on Enforcement

Rebecca Kaplan

While the Senate debates an immigration bill on the floor this week, the House will finally dive into the process of marking up a bill, and it’s sure to be contentious.

The House Judiciary Committee announced that on Tuesday it will tackle the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act, the most contentious of the four stand-alone immigration bills backed by Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. The tough interior enforcement measure would allow states to pass their own immigration laws and enable local police to act as immigration officers. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the Immigration Subcommittee, has 21 Republican cosponsors.

After a mostly civil discussion on immigration in the House, where a group of seven lawmakers are negotiating a bipartisan immigration overhaul, things could soon turn nasty. By starting with an enforcement-only bill, Goodlatte has set up a stark contrast to the legislation on the floor of the Senate, which is considering a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

“The approach this bill takes is dangerous and wrong,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., at a hearing on the bill last Thursday. Lofgren, ranking member on the Immigration Subcommittee as well as a member of the bipartisan negotiating group, said current immigration laws “can’t be fully enforced without devastating our economy, our businesses, our families, and our communities.”

The day of the hearing, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., another member of the bipartisan group, scolded his Republican colleagues in an op-ed in the Huffington Post for their recent actions, including a vote that would have defunded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allows young illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid the threat of deportation.

“What were you thinking? You should know better. I thought you were leaving behind your get-tough-on-immigrants political games and had packed them deep in a storage unit with your ‘Mitt for President’ buttons,” he wrote, in reference to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s dismal showing last year among Hispanics, in part because of a suggestion that they “self-deport.”

Goodlatte and Gowdy have argued the bill will help avoid a repeat of the 1986 amnesty, after which millions of illegal immigrants flooded back into the country. But Democrats say it will effectively criminalize all illegal immigrants in the country, and make communities less safe by giving them less incentive to call police or report crimes.

The tenor of last Thursday’s hearing hasn’t dissuaded Goodlatte, who highlighted victims of violence by illegal immigrants. “The SAFE Act avoids the mistakes of the 1986 immigration law by providing a robust interior enforcement strategy, including granting states the ability to enforce our immigration laws, that will help ensure we put an end to illegal immigration,” he said in a statement announcing the markup. He has said that his piecemeal approach will assist in that effort.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has shied away from endorsing either a comprehensive or piecemeal approach to reform, though he has said he would like to pass something out of the Judiciary Committee by the end of the month. With no legislation yet from the bipartisan group, Goodlatte’s bill stands a much better chance of making it to the floor first.

The Judiciary Committee will begin marking up an agricultural guest worker bill after the SAFE Act is completed.