The Senate has been hogging the spotlight on immigration over the past few months, starting in February with an agreed-upon set of principles from a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators and ending this week with a fully drafted bill and at least 11 hours of hearings.
Now it’s the House’s turn, starring enigmatic Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., an immigration lawyer and 20-year veteran of Congress who assumed the helm of the panel this year. Goodlatte matters a great deal in this debate, but it still isn't clear exactly what he will do. And that's fine with him.
We learned a tad more about Goodlatte’s approach to immigration at a press conference Thursday. The committee is unveiling two small immigration bills this week as discussion pieces for House members—one creating an agricultural visa program and one requiring employers to use an electronic-verification system.
That won't be all, Goodlatte assured. More proposals are coming, and they will address all of the big areas, including the 11 million or 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. The chairman's message to the anxious immigration-reform advocates who fear a “piecemeal” approach is this: Don’t freak out. We just have to do this our own way.
Since it became clear after last year’s elections that immigration would be a top issue in Congress, Goodlatte has been resolutely unwilling to make declarations about where he stands. That is no small feat, as stakeholders and reporters clamor for tidbits that might inform the legislation's chances.
Does he support legalization of the current undocumented population? Will his committee vote on a comprehensive bill being drafted by a House Gang of Eight that does not include him? That will all be worked out, he told National Journal Daily cheerfully in February on the way out of a hearing.
Goodlatte was slightly more informative on Thursday, indicating a willingness to look at all proposals and emphasizing the need to include Democrats in the legislative process.
But the committee has scheduled no votes and made no promises of anything more than lots of hearings. It would sound a lot like delay tactics if not for the intensity with which the chairman describes how the current immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed.
Goodlatte is starting from the beginning with his own caucus. He has already briefed 100 House Republicans on basic immigration law and the areas that need improving, and he will continue to hold small sessions to explain the basics. He is encouraging Democrats to do the same.
Despite the vagueness, this sometimes frustratingly opaque lawmaker revealed three nuggets of information.
The undocumented population won’t be left out. Goodlatte opened his press conference referring to “11 million people who live in the shadows.… They are real people with real problems trying to find a better way to help their families.” Asked specifically whether he supports legalization of this group, as the Senate gang has proposed, he said that to deal with immigration reform generally, “you have to get to that point.”
He reiterated statements from other conservative Republicans working toward a broad immigration overhaul in saying he does not favor “a special path to citizenship” but is open to “some kind of legal status.”
Like many Republicans involved in crafting a bigger immigration package, Goodlatte stressed that his own support for a path to citizenship is dependent on a real commitment to shoring up enforcement on the border and at United States work sites.
The "piecemeal" approach is not set in stone. Rumors have been swirling all year that the House would be unwilling to take up comprehensive immigration legislation, with lawmakers preferring to pass a series of smaller bills on isolated issues. Many House Republicans are insisting on a separate border-security bill that doesn’t include provisions unpopular with their party, such as the Dream Act for undocumented youth or probationary legalization for the broader unauthorized population.
Advocated consider the piecemeal strategy the death knell of the reform effort.
Goodlatte isn’t adopting a piecemeal approach, at least we don't think so. He is taking a piece-by-piece approach in analyzing immigration, but he made it clear Thursday that when it comes to actual committee votes, border security “does not have to be addressed in one separate bill.”
Dream Act eligibles could be given dispensation. Asked specifically about the Dream Act, the easiest legalization piece of immigration reform for many conservatives to accept, Goodlatte indicated that children brought to the country illegally by their parents should be considered separately.
“It should be obvious to most people that children brought here by their parents are in a different status … than people who willfully violated immigration laws,” he said.
Going further, Goodlatte said there may be many different ways of dealing with unauthorized immigrants. “You don’t have to consider the 11 million as one body of people. There are a number of different categories.” Criminals, for example, would not be given any legal status, he said.
The bottom line for Goodlatte and Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., is that the House will work in its own way on its own schedule even as the Senate scrambles to pass an immigration bill this summer. Goodlatte will make sure they don’t look idle, but what actually happens on his side of the Capitol is still anyone’s guess.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a die-hard advocate of a path to citizenship, was encouraged by Goodlatte's proclamations, even though some questions remain unanswered. "Today's press conference confirms what I have been saying publicly and privately about the new tone and new interest among Republicans. They want to solve the immigration-policy issue and not just exploit it for partisan politics," Gutierrez said in a statement.
This article appears in the April 26, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.