Congress’ Immigration Fight Hits the Road

Times Staff Writer

Starting with a hearing in San Diego on Wednesday, House members are launching a summerlong sparring match over how best to untangle and reorder the nation’s thicket of immigration laws.

Alongside that debate, Democrats and Republicans will wage a second struggle -- to see which party can best wring a political advantage from the hearings as the November elections draw closer.

The San Diego hearing is a stage for Republicans to highlight the dangers of cross-border smuggling. They will argue that the Senate immigration bill would not adequately protect against either threat.


Also Wednesday, in Philadelphia, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) will counter the House inquiry with his own hearing defending the Senate’s broader approach to immigration.

Congressional hearings are usually held to explore an issue and search for solutions. House Republicans have been frank in saying that their hearings, in July and August, are a negotiating tool with two goals: to highlight perceived flaws in the Senate bill and to build public support for their own enforcement-only legislation.

“Pointing out what I would describe as the inadequacies in the Reid-Kennedy bill will help strengthen our hand as we move toward a compromise with the Senate,” said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who used the names of two Democratic senators, Harry Reid of Nevada and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to refer to -- and deride -- the bipartisan bill.

Democrats say the House hearings are political theater to rally core GOP voters with biased witness lists and loaded topic headings.

Even so, the minority party is just as enthusiastic to start them.

In San Diego and the three or four hearings to follow, Democrats say they plan to ask why Republicans are spending the summer talking about immigration instead of working on it.


And Democrats say the hearings offer the perfect opportunity to point out that if the U.S.-Mexico border is porous, if agents are underfunded, and if workplace immigration law is rarely enforced, much of that has happened under six years of Republican rule.

Democrats in Congress -- and President Bush -- largely support the Senate bill, which includes not only enforcement measures, but a guest worker program and a way for most of the country’s illegal immigrants to attain citizenship.

The House bill, closely identified with congressional Republicans, focuses solely on enforcement, including a 700-mile wall along the southern border and provisions that would make illegal presence in the United States a felony.

Until the hearings are complete, negotiations to reconcile the two bills will not begin, though House and Senate leaders are expected to confer throughout the summer.

The House will hold hearings in California, Texas and Arizona to examine border vulnerabilities; a declaration of English as the official U.S. language; the enforcement of current immigration law; and the impact of illegal immigration on local, state and federal governments.

Specter will match those hearings at least once, on Wednesday, “to develop a broader factual, evidentiary record on the need for the comprehensive bill, which is challenged by quite a number of House members,” he said.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House International Relations Committee’s subcommittee on international terrorism and nonproliferation, will chair the San Diego hearing and a hearing Friday in Laredo, Texas -- both of which, he said last week, “will focus on the security threat posed by undocumented illegal entry across our borders.”

In San Diego, three witness panels will discuss the chance that terrorists could cross the border; border crossings by non-Mexicans; and improvements in border security since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But Rep. Brad Sherman of Sherman Oaks, the ranking Democrat on Royce’s subcommittee, contends that the panel has no jurisdiction over any border or immigration issue. It deals with the State Department, he said, not Homeland Security.

“It just shows that Republicans are using every committee and every subcommittee to have as many irrelevant hearings as possible,” Sherman said.

Even so, he said, he’s happy to attend -- and will be joined by Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk), a fellow member of the International Relations Committee.

“People will see that Republicans have been in charge of the government for six years and we have a failed policy on the ground,” Sherman said.

This line of attack will be part of the minority playbook for the summer, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Thursday.

“If congressional Republicans want to make immigration the centerpiece of their 2006 campaign, I’ve got three words for them: Make our day,” Schumer said.

“The GOP Congress has had 12 years to tackle this problem but has instead taken a ‘See no evil, hear no evil’ approach to the Bush White House’s failure to enforce immigration laws.”

Democrats are being encouraged to attend the hearings. Some who are traveling to San Diego, including Reps. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose and Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, are not members of Royce’s subcommittee.

“We want to hold people’s feet to the fire,” Becerra said.

The House has already held two hearings in Washington on the Senate bill. During a hearing Wednesday on border intelligence, Lofgren -- the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment -- blasted Republicans, saying they were “all talk and no action.”

At that hearing, where Democrats were allowed one witness out of six, Lofgren said Republicans had not followed the recommendations of the independent Sept. 11 commission to add immigration enforcement agents, Border Patrol agents and detention beds.

And she wondered aloud why none of the hearings addressed the northern border, as 17 suspected terrorists had recently been arrested in Canada.

“They’re playing in the playpen of politics,” Lofgren said.