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The House Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman urged a methodical study of potential changes to immigration law with a focus on improving U.S. economic competitiveness.
The “momentous debate on immigration” that Congress is beginning “will be a massive undertaking with significant implications for the future direction of our nation,’ Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said at the opening of today’s hearing on ways to improve the legal immigration system. ‘‘We can’t rush to judgment.”
A bipartisan group of senators is trying to craft comprehensive legislation that would include tougher border security and a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants now in the U.S.
Goodlatte said Congress should “move forward methodically and evaluate this issue in stages.” Further hearings will focus on border security and enforcement against illegal immigration, he said. Lawmakers should “fully vet the pros and cons of each piece,” he said.
Only 12 percent of legal immigrants to the U.S. are selected “on the basis of their skill and education,” Goodlatte said. Countries such as Australia, Canada and the U.K. “select over 60 percent of their immigrants on this basis,” he said.
The long wait for permanent U.S. residency erodes economic competitiveness by discouraging highly skilled workers who received temporary visas to work in the U.S., he said. So do laws that “erect unnecessary hurdles for farmers” to hire foreign workers, he said.
“Our agriculture guest worker program is simply unworkable and needs to be reformed,” Goodlatte said.
Comments by Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the hearing’s outset underscored philosophical differences between the parties about immigration. Democrats stressed the value of laws that allow intact families to immigrate, regardless of their educational attainments. Republicans complained of lax enforcement and highlighted the economic benefits of allowing more skilled and highly educated workers into the country.
Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez, who rejoined the Judiciary Committee this year to help lead an overhaul of the immigration laws, said his parents came to the U.S. with limited education. They didn’t have advanced degrees that qualify some immigrants now to obtain H-1B visas, he said.
“While I don’t hold any of these prestigious degrees either, I’ve done well here,” Gutierrez said.
California Democrat Zoe Lofgren said Intel Corp. (INTC) co-founder Andrew Grove, a native of Hungary, and Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google Inc. who was born in Russia, immigrated with their families, not as holders of visas reserved for highly skilled workers or people with advanced degrees.
“From Alexander Hamilton to Andrew Carnegie to Albert Einstein we are a nation of immigrants,” Lofgren said. “Immigration is good for our country.”
Goodlatte asked San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro if there are “options we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and the path to citizenship” for 11 million people unlawfully in the U.S.
“A pathway to citizenship is the option that Congress should select,” said Castro, a Democrat whose twin brother Joaquin was elected to Congress last year as a Democrat from the San Antonio area. “I don’t see that as an extreme option,” the mayor said.
“In terms of the 11 million folks who are here, putting them on a path to citizenship after they pay taxes, they pay a fine, make sure they get back in line” for legalization is “the best option,” Castro said.
South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, chairman of the panel’s immigration subcommittee, said that when Congress last overhauled the immigration law in 1986 it didn’t ensure effective enforcement against illegal immigration while it gave amnesty to millions of undocumented aliens in the country at the time.
“We have traveled this road before,” he said. “In 1986 we are told that immigration was settled once and for all,” he said. “The country got amnesty but is still waiting 35 years later for border security and employer verification.”
Lofgren said lawmakers shouldn’t overestimate the value of border enforcement in an era when “net migration from Mexico is zero.” Concerns about border security “should not be used to delay top-to-bottom reform of our laws,” she said.
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