At the witness table at Wednesday's Senate hearing on immigration reform sat the head of the labor union for immigration enforcement agents. Two seats away, at the same table, sat an illegal immigrant — testifying without fear of deportation thanks to President Obama's new policies.
Together they captured two truths about the immigration debate: America is a nation of laws, and a nation of immigrants. And sometimes those two cannot be easily reconciled.
"Before we take your questions here, I have a few of my own. What do you want to do with me?" Jose Antonio Vargas, the illegal immigrant, asked the Senate Judiciary Committee. "To me, the most important question, as a student of American history, is this: How do you define American? How do you define it?"
Mr. Vargas' testimony provided a high point for the hearing, which kicked off the immigration debate in the Senate.
Born in the Philippines and sent to the U.S. at age 12 to live with his grandfather, who had become a naturalized citizen, Mr. Vargas said he didn't know he was here illegally until he was 16 and went to try to get a driver's license. That's when he learned the documents his grandfather had given him were fraudulent.
He stayed in the country and went on to become a reporter, including sharing in a Pulitzer Prize during his time at The Washington Post.
Several years ago, he "came out" as an illegal immigrant, and has since taken to advocating for immigrant rights.
On Wednesday, he told the panel not to call him an illegal immigrant.
"When you inaccurately call me illegal, you are not only dehumanizing me, you're offending them," he said. "No human being is illegal."
His testimony won rave reviews from Democrats.
Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy called him "a whistleblower" for others in his situation.
"In speaking on behalf of millions who cannot speak for themselves, you shed light on the human impact of our immigration system," he said.
But Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said having Mr. Vargas testify underscores how little attention the Obama administration pays to enforcing the laws on the books.
"I think that's a symbol of the lack of seriousness of people that are promoting comprehensive immigration reform," he said. "It demonstrates a lack of commitment to demonstrating a lawful system of immigration."
The Obama administration has written a series of policies telling immigration agents to focus only on immigrants with serious criminal records when deciding whom to deport.
Chris Crane is a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who heads the ICE union. He testified along with Mr. Vargas, saying that's led to situations where agents find themselves being disciplined for trying to make arrests, while illegal immigrants go free.
"ICE recently proposed a three-day suspension for an ICE agent who arrested an illegal alien with multiple convictions for driving without a license and who was attempting to operate a vehicle in the agent's presence," Mr. Crane said. "While seeking disciplinary action against the agent, ICE simply released the alien without charge, putting yet another unlicensed driver behind the wheel."
Earlier this week, he sent a letter to President Obama asking to be included in the meetings the White House is hosting with groups pushing for legalization.
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