Calling for stricter enforcement of existing laws, House Republicans said Tuesday the nation’s broken immigration system is making it more difficult for minorities to land jobs because they are competing with illegals willing to work longer hours for less pay.
Democrats, though, countered that the GOP was using immigration to pit blacks against Hispanics while ignoring the “real” problems in minority communities, including the lack of education and job-training resources, that drive unemployment.
The sniping came during a hearing of the House Judiciary immigration policy and enforcement subcommittee as Republicans sought to highlight potential conflicts that could break the coalition that Democrats put together to try to pass broad immigration reform in recent years.
It also served as the latest reminder of the Republican takeover of the House, where the GOP is now in position to shape the agenda and appears determined to make immigration enforcement part of the debates over federal spending and the nation’s 9 percent unemployment rate.
Reading from a prepared statement, House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, pointed to a Pew Hispanic Center report that showed more than 7 million people are working in the country illegally and noted that the unemployment rates in minority communities - about 12 percent among Hispanics and nearly 16 percent among blacks - are well above the national average.
“These jobs should go to legal workers, many of whom would be minorities,” Mr. Smith said.
But Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, the ranking member of the committee, said that instead of tackling the “deeper issues underlying our weakened economy, high unemployment and continued inequities, we seem to be blaming all of our problems on undocumented workers.”
“If my colleagues really care about minorities, they should focus on policies and programs that will actually help them,” Mr. Conyers said, noting that some economists contend the gloomy jobs picture in minority communities can be attributed more to a lack of educational opportunities, high crime rates and the loss of factory and other blue-collar jobs than to the influx of immigrants.
“Yet Republicans consistently oppose programs aimed at addressing those problems such as increasing the minimum wage, health care reform, equal pay for women, and foreclosure relief.”
The three witnesses Republican called for the hearing were black and Hispanic.
In the opening months of the 112th Congress, the debate over immigration has been overshadowed by fights over federal spending, the annual budget deficit and the $14.1 trillion national debt.
But immigration re-emerged last week after Senate Democrats inserted the issue into the ongoing budget battle, saying cuts Republicans have proposed in their 2011 budget plan would cut money for border fencing and could scuttle much of President Obama’s Border Patrol surge.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said that under the GOP’s plan, more than 800 Border Patrol agents and $273 million of fencing and other infrastructure along the border will be put on the chopping block.
The subcommittee hearing Tuesday suggested more of that approach is to come, as Republicans rammed home the message that the lack of immigration enforcement is squeezing low-skilled minorities out of the work force and replacing them with illegal immigrants with little, if any, education.
“They are the real victims of the American failed immigration policy,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly, California Republican, chairman of the immigration policy subcommittee.
After the hearing, Steven A. Camarota, of the Center on Immigration Studies, said that it is hard to justify the idea that the country has a “terrible shortage of unskilled workers at the bottom end of the labor market.”
“America right now has 25 million native-born people who have no education beyond high school and who are not working,” Mr. Camarota said.
But Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group, described the hearing as a “pretty transparent attempt to pit African-American workers against Latino workers, and I think it failed.”
“It was like Lamar [Smith] and company threw a fat pitch down the middle of the plate, and Democrats hit it out of the park,” Mr. Sharry said.