The new Congress will hold its first hearing on overhauling immigration laws on Tuesday, and some pro-immigrant groups and Democrats already are grumbling that the makeup of witnesses scheduled to testify before a House panel is weighted toward conservatives who oppose citizenship for illegal immigrants and support a limited flow of newcomers.
Critics are concerned that the witness list signals that Republican lawmakers' post-election embrace of immigration reform may not materialize. None of the pro-immigrant groups is represented among the speakers.
"What we're looking for is whether there's any change on the part of the committee to change how they approach this issue or stick with this line that immigrants are not good for America ... and they need to self-deport as the only way to progress," says Lynn Tramonte of the pro-immigrant group America's Voice. "The problem is we have 11 million people without paper in this country and we need to deal with that. I don't see anybody here called by the Republicans that will address that."
Republicans control the House of Representatives and have the authority to call most of the witnesses. And the House Judiciary Committee is filled with Republicans who are immigration hawks, including new Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. Goodlatte has taken a hard line against many of the proposals, such as citizenship for existing illegal immigrants, now included in the blueprint released by the bipartisan "gang of eight" in the Senate. The senators' proposals also align with President Obama's priorities for legislation.
"That's what happens when you're in the minority," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates limited immigration and greater enforcement. Krikorian's director of policy studies, Jessica Vaughan, is scheduled to speak at the hearing. "The idea that this is a stacked hearing, that's just whining."
Based on prepared testimony submitted by the eight people called before the Judiciary Committee, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who is Mexican-American, may give the only strong argument for a single, comprehensive bill to overhaul the immigration system and set a path to citizenship for those living illegally in the United States.
Castro, one of two witnesses chosen by Democratic members of the committee, is a rising star in his party and supports both the senators' and the president's plans. He also supports Obama's previous immigration policy changes, such as the deferred deportation program for qualified young adults and prosecutorial discretion that targets serious criminal offenders for deportation.
In Castro's prepared remarks, he advocates for increased border security, a streamlined worker verification process and a path to citizenship:
"This hearing and more importantly, the bipartisan legislation that I believe can be enacted because of it, shows that we are on the cusp of real progress. The president and a growing number of bipartisan lawmakers have laid the framework for what Americans support: comprehensive, common-sense reform."
The committee will hear from two panels. Castro is scheduled to testify at the first, which has drawn less criticism for its participants. The group will address the current immigration system and includes representatives from academia and think tanks, such as Puneet Arora, of Immigration Voice, which advocates for more visas for foreigners with degrees in science and technology.
The second panel will address enforcement issues. Speakers include critics of Obama's immigration policy such as Vaughan, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer Christopher Crane, and Julie Myers Wood, who headed ICE under President George W. Bush.
Crane is president of the National ICE Council, the bargaining unit for about 7,000 agency employees, which has filed suit against the Obama administration, claiming that following the president's lenient deportation policies requires ICE agents to violate the law.
In Crane's prepared testimony, he says Obama has put agents through a "roller coaster":
"The day-to-day duties of ICE agents and officers often seem in conflict with the law as ICE officers are prohibited from enforcing many laws enacted by Congress; laws they took an oath to enforce. ICE is now guided in large part by the influences of powerful special interest groups that advocate on behalf of illegal aliens. These influences have in large part eroded the order, stability and effectiveness of the agency."
Wood, in her prepared remarks, endorsed continued prosecutorial discretion but cautions that it must be "carefully tailored so that the agency is not creating incentives for individuals to come here illegally and break the law." She also seems to take issue with the leniency of Obama's policy, saying that an overhaul shouldn't "grant a wholesale exemption on whole categories of individuals without the approval of Congress, or make an executive branch decision to simply defer action on broad sections of immigration violators."