WASHINGTON (CN) - Congress debated mass deportation versus amnesty in a seven-hour brainstorming session on immigration reform Tuesday.
After Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., took the floor some hours into the session, protesters stood in the back and shouted, "Undocumented and Unafraid!"
Capitol police ushered them outside as Issa remarked, "I don't think those disrupters understand my politics."
Members of both parties said the country's immigration system is broken, marking the first time in 25 years that Congress plans to address immigration with a comprehensive reform.
Rep. John Conyers Jr, D-Mich., said, "We need an earned immigration process that is fair, not firm or subject to a lot of manipulation."
"I hope that this committee will rise above its political instincts and try to serve the nation and American citizens in a very important way," he added. "I hope nobody uses the term 'illegal immigrants' - they're not illegal, they're out of status, they're new Americans."
The hearing, which is the first official hearing of the Judiciary Committee for the 113th Congress, comes just days after the introduction of a bipartisan immigration bill in the Senate, proposing to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) visas distributed each year.
Though Judiciary Committee members from both parties agreed on prioritizing the retention of skilled STEM workers, Republicans refused to embrace amnesty.
Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio and a rising star in the Democratic Party, faced grueling questions at the hearing from Republicans fighting a pathway to citizenship.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, criticized Castro for refusing to compromise between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship.
"I don't think a pathway to citizenship is the extreme," Castro said. "That would be open borders."
Castro applauded the Obama administration's efforts to "increase the boots on the ground" in border states, stating that the president's efforts have helped keep dangerous criminals out of the country.
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, said border patrol agents have nabbed more than 356,000 people trying to illegally cross the border last year.
Duke University engineer Vivek Wadhwa, Harvard Law School fellow Michael Teitelbaum and Puneet Arora, the vice president of Immigration Voice, also testified at the hearing.
Wadhwa spoke passionately about America losing the global race to attract and retain skilled immigrants, a trend that puts the country's economic recovery at risk.
"The spouses of H1-B workers are not allowed to work, and, depending on the state in which they live, they may not even be able to get a driver's license or open a bank account," Wadhwa said. "They are forced to live as second-class citizens. Not surprisingly, many are getting frustrated and returning home. We must stop this brain drain and do all we can to bring more engineers and scientists here. Contrary to what anti-immigrants group say, these people expand the economy and create jobs for Americans."
Some Republicans scoffed at Wadhwa's proposal to "make the pie bigger" by giving all undocumented workers green cards.
"We have to put faces on things, and when I saw the children gathered around the president as he often does now I think about the financial burden we're placing on our children, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said. "Who's going to pay?"
Arora, the nonprofit officer, proposed that Congress address the deep backlog of visa applications for workers and their families, which span dozens of years. He also echoed Wadhwa's believe that STEM workers will create more jobs for Americans.
The bill introduced in the Senate last week, known as the Immigration Innovation Act, proposes both an increase the number of STEM visas and in the number of H-1B visas awarded every year. It would also allow H-1B spouses to work in the country.
Several Judiciary Committee members worried over the languishing visa applications from families of documented immigrant workers, kept apart from loved ones for as long as 20 years.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., was particularly concerned with recognizing gay and lesbian partnerships in a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Republicans, who have shied away from committing to a comprehensive reform as opposed to dealing with the issue through a series of smaller bills, appeared more concerned over the effects and costs of amnesty. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., asked Castro about the benefits of being able to deport illegal immigrant felons with known gangs associations before they commit violent crimes.
Castro pressed on: "You want to deport people before they commit the crime?"
Forbes replied that "these are the tough questions we have to consider."
Wadhwa and some committee members brought up the idea of retina scans and other identification technology as a way for local governments to control undocumented workers.
This and other proposed solutions to limit the amount of undocumented workers failed, however, to take the spotlight from the theme of the hearing - how the country can benefit from immigrant STEM workers and how to solve the problem of the 10 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country.
Citing findings from the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Teitelbaum suggested that awarding visas through a priority system would benefit workers as well as employers that depend on the cheap labor.
"The commission could find no credible evidence that employers who offer adequate remuneration would face difficulties in hiring from the large numbers of low-skilled and unskilled workers already in the U.S. domestic workforce," Teitelbaum said.
Most attendees failed to return to the marathon session after a one-hour recess.
This segment featured a second panel of witnesses, including Guidepost Solutions president Julie Wood and Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council.
"This is about people lying to stay in the country," Crane said. "This is about politics."
Crane, one of several ICE agents who sued the Department of Homeland Security for allegedly prohibiting them from doing their jobs, testified that his agency is understaffed and politically handcuffed from enforcing immigration laws.
"In fact, under current policy individuals illegally in the United States must now be convicted of three or more criminal misdemeanors before ICE agents are permitted to charge or arrest the illegal alien for illegal entry or overstaying a visa, unless the misdemeanors involve the most serious types of offenses such as assault, sexual abuse or drug trafficking," Crane said.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., closed the hearing with reservations about the ability of Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform.
"If we want to talk about comprehensive immigration reform, we better include this aspect of enforcement," he said.
"It's been a long day, but a good day," he added.
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