Momentum may be building for legalizing illegal immigrants, but House Republicans signaled Tuesday they are in no hurry, kicking off congressional hearings on immigration by focusing on how to attract more high-tech workers and how to boost enforcement.
President Obama, who has vowed to force a debate on legalization, kept up pressure Tuesday by meeting with immigrant-rights advocates and business leaders at the White House.
But on Capitol Hill, Republicans are already grappling with some of the thorniest issues of legalization, including how to try to head off another flood of illegal immigrants that could result from legalizing the current estimated 11 million now already here.
"Are we serious about making this the last, last time we have this conversation, or are we simply playing political games with people's lives and undercutting the respect for the rule of law, which ironically is the very reason they seek to come to this country in the first place?" said Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the immigration subcommittee. "We shall see," said the South Carolina Republican.
Tuesday's hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was the first since the 2012 elections. Hispanic voters helped power Mr. Obama to victory as a reward for his pledge to fight for immigration reforms.
The Senate, controlled by Democrats, will hold its first hearing next week, and has invited Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano to testify. Ms. Napolitano is traveling in the Southwest this week, where she is making the point that borders are secure enough to begin to work on legalization.
Her visit comes as U.S. Customs and Border Protection released the latest arrest numbers from the Southwest border, which showed a 9 percent increase in fiscal year 2012. Arrests are usually thought to be an indicator of crossings, so a rise in arrests suggests that illegal immigration is picking up after years of decline.
CBP said it made 356,873 arrests in 2012, which is up from 327,577 in 2011 — though both are still way down from 2006 when nearly 1.2 million arrests were made.
Tuesday's House hearing focused on some areas where there might be agreement.
The first panel of four witnesses highlighted the technology sector, where both Democrats and Republicans say the legal immigration system is too burdensome and is chasing potential job-creators away.
"We keep talking about the 11 million, 10 million undocumented, unskilled workers, the illegal workers. We don't talk about the 1 million skilled immigrants who are trapped in limbo who are doctors, scientists, lawyers who can't get visas," said Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering.
But Michael Teitelbaum, who was part of an immigration reform commission in the 1990s, said not all U.S. high-tech sectors have job shortages, and he said the country should construct a system that responds to shortages based on U.S. needs.
He said the earlier commission also recommended streamlining family-based immigration so that siblings and adult children are not considered priorities for legal immigration.
The committee also heard from enforcement experts who said the government needs to show more dedication to enforcing the laws in the future — whether or not it enacts a legalization program.
That, though, will take even more resources, said Julie Myers Wood, who was director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the end of the Bush administration. She said that will be particularly important because there would likely be a rush of people trying to get into the country to take advantage of any new legalization program.
"I think that ICE and the Border Patrol are underequipped and that we need to kind of look at resources. They may be more temporary resources because you know there's going to be a large migration of people coming in illegally trying to get kind of, you know, right under the radar so they can adjust," she said.
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