The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee laid out a go-slow approach on immigration Wednesday, saying he doesn’t think having President Obama write a bill and demand that Congress vote on it would be successful.
Senators are racing against a White House-imposed deadline to write legislation before Mr. Obama sends his own version.
But Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said his panel will take time to hold hearings on each part of immigration reform and that he hasn’t decided whether to write a single broad bill, as Mr. Obama has requested, or to take it up piece by piece.
“You have to be careful about not jumping to conclusions or not have the president write a bill in advance and say this is my bill. I think that’s a mistaken way of going about it. The top-down approach hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work this time,” he said as he laid out how his committee will tackle the thorny issue this year.
They are the first extensive comments from the man who will take the lead in writing the House bill, though Mr. Goodlatte said he expects plenty of input from his colleagues.
As part of the go-slow approach, Mr. Goodlatte said, his committee will hold extensive hearings. In addition to a hearing on immigration enforcement this month, the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday examined agriculture workers and on Wednesday took a look at E-Verify, the government’s voluntary system for employers to check whether workers are in the U.S. legally.
Mr. Goodlatte’s approach earned praise from staunch immigrant rights advocates, particularly after Tuesday’s hearing. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, said it was the first meeting he could remember where none of the witnesses favored a crackdown on immigration.
“This is the first time in 20 years that I feel I share the same basic values as every panelist invited by the Republican majority,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “The chairman and the subcommittee chairman are approaching this issue from a new and much more constructive perspective, which gives me great hope that we can come to agreement across party lines on immigration this year.”
There are still many thorny issues to resolve in the debate, and Mr. Goodlatte said he is determined to avoid a repeat of 1986, when the U.S. last granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and Washington promised to begin enforcing the laws against employers and boosting patrols along the border.
Mr. Goodlatte, who was a practicing immigration lawyer at the time, said Republican and Democratic presidents never followed through on enforcement after the amnesty.
Mr. Goodlatte said he supports bringing the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows but noted that there is a range of options between deportation and a quick granting of citizenship. Under current law, illegal immigrants are supposed to return to their home countries and are barred from re-entering the U.S. for up to 10 years.
“Maybe you have to still go home but you don’t have the bar. Maybe you adjust [the law] here,” Mr. Goodlatte said.
He said the Obama administration’s recent release of immigrants awaiting deportation endangers communities.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it made the decision to accommodate “sequesters,” which are due to hit Friday and will require across-the-board spending cuts to almost every agency.
On Wednesday, the White House said it had nothing to do with the decision. The Associated Press reported that the official responsible for ICE’s detention program resigned.
The White House argues that it has taken sufficient steps on immigration enforcement and says it is time to turn attention to legalization.
But Republicans in border states have challenged Mr. Obama’s claims of security.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told The Washington Times on Tuesday that City Hall in El Paso, Texas, was struck by gunfire from across the border in Juarez, Mexico, last year. A college in Brownsville, at the other end of Texas’ 1,200-mile border with Mexico, “had bullets fly across its campus from cartel members across the border,” he said.
“It is factually incorrect for anyone to suggest that the border is secure and is not being penetrated, and that has to be the initial linchpin of any comprehensive immigration reform that is going to take place in the country. Without that, there really is no immigration reform,” Mr. Abbott told The Times.
Republicans working on an immigration bill in the Senate have insisted that any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants be created only after the border is deemed secure and after the country has established a better system to weed out illegal workers.
The president has said he wants illegal immigrants to have a definite path to citizenship that isn’t tied to any “triggers” such as border security.
Mr. Obama met Tuesday with two of the Republicans involved in that bipartisan group, and Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona emerged to say they were encouraged by the talks.
The president has said the senators must finish writing their bill quickly or else he would send his own version to Capitol Hill and demand a vote on it.
Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.