WASHINGTON (CN) - The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Friday on immigration reform in the shadow of the manhunt for one of the suspects behind the Boston Marathon bombing.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano backed out of her scheduled appearance at the hearing to monitor the search.
The Chechen suspects, one of whom was killed in a firefight with police Thursday night, reportedly arrived in the United States over a decade ago as refugees from Kyrgyzstan. Dzhokar Tsarnaev, 19, reportedly became a citizen on Sept. 11, 2012, and was naturalized. His now-deceased brother, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev was reportedly not naturalized but was in the country legally.
Their immigration status shrouded Friday's hearing on the massive Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight introduced on Wednesday.
The 844-page bill proposes the creation of a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. It also beefs up border patrol along the Mexico-U.S. border.
"Unfortunately, I think we're off to a rough start," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "Most members of staff on the committee have not read the bill in its entirety prior to this hearing."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of the eight proponents of the bill, chided these words as a delay tactic.
"Certainly every one of us, unless we want to say we don't know how to read, will have plenty of time to analyze this bill before we actually start marketing it up in May," Leahy said. "But just remember, immigration has been an ongoing source of renewal of our spirit, our creativity and also our economic strength. ... We can talk about it, but eventually we have to vote. Millions of Americans are depending upon us."
The remaining members of the Gang of Eight are Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Bob Mendez, D-N.J., John McCain, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.
Though most members of the Judiciary Committee applauded their efforts, some Republicans expressed concerns that a pathway to citizenship amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"I have no confidence in this administration based on what we've seen to ever enforce any law that makes any real difference," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
"This is indisputable," Sessions told his colleagues. "We have more low-skilled labor than we can find jobs for today. This bill does not reduce the flow of low-skilled labor into America."
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow echoed Sessions' concerns in his testimony. "We have 90 million people in the civil population that aren't working right now and that could work," Kirsanow said. "We're thinking about expanding the labor supply. ... That's madness."
American low-skilled workers and minorities will be the hardest hit by the ramifications of the bill, Kirsanow added.
Republicans from the U.S. House of Representatives have been expressing their displeasure over the bill since its introduction.
"It's hard to believe, but the Senate immigration bill is worse than we thought," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who has participated in hearings on the House's version of immigration reform in the House Judiciary Committee. "Despite assurances, the border is not secured before almost everyone in the country illegally is given amnesty. The bill guarantees there will be a rush across the border to take advantage of massive amnesty."
Democrats were not without their own concerns, expressing displeasure over the bill's treatment of immigrant families. The bill authorizes the spouses of immigrants to work and gives Dream Act-like benefits to the children of immigrants, but it does not offer the same assistance for siblings or gay and lesbian families.
Leahy promised that the two-hour hearing was just the start of what will become a months-long debate on how to fix the country's broken immigration system. He said that he and Grassley were already arranging a rescheduled visit for Napolitano.
The bill must weather multiple mark-up hearings before the Judiciary Committee before it makes to the Senate floor.
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