* Judiciary panel Republicans note need to enforce laws
* Democrats urge citizenship for undocumented residents
* Hearing underscores difficult path for legislation
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Feb 5 The U.S. immigration system is
badly in need of reform but Congress should not rush legislation
to President Barack Obama, who is demanding prompt action, a
leading Republican said on Tuesday.
In the first of a series of hearings planned by the House of
Representatives Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte
warned a packed hearing room that his panel "needs to take the
time to learn from the past so that our efforts to reform our
immigration laws do not repeat the same mistakes."
Obama and many of his fellow Democrats in Congress are
pushing for passage this year of comprehensive reforms that
would include putting 11 million illegal residents on a path to
Pro-immigrant groups have been pushing for action for years
without success. But November elections, in which
Hispanic-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, gave new
impetus for legislation. They also jarred Republicans into
acknowledging the need for action - a turnaround after their
presidential hopefuls campaigned on tough anti-immigration
platforms in 2011 and 2012.
But there still are significant disagreements between the
two parties over how to balance the need for border security and
regularize the status of illegal immigrants. The most
contentious issue is the possible legalization of those who
emigrated to the United States without permission.
Goodlatte acknowledged that Congress must address how to
deal with those who have come to the United States illegally,
many of whom now have deep roots, with children attending
American public schools.
But the Virginia Republican noted that members of Congress
"have a lot of questions about how a large-scale legalization
program would work, what it would cost and how it would prevent
illegal immigration in the future."
Goodlatte's remarks focused on the need to enforce
immigration laws and to accommodate more foreign workers with
high-tech skills, which are needed by corporations in the
Silicon Valley and elsewhere, and farm workers.
Some Republicans are calling for more modest steps in
dealing with the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United
States who live under the threat of deportation. Instead of
putting them on a path to citizenship, some have suggested a
permanent work visa for them.
FRANCE, GERMANY WARNING
But Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the senior
Democrat on the House judiciary subcommittee that will delve
into legislative fixes, warned: "Partial legalization, as some
are suggesting, is a dangerous path and we need only look at
France and Germany to see how unwise it is to create a permanent
underclass" in the United States.
A bipartisan group of senators last week unveiled a
comprehensive reform plan that they hope to translate into
legislation in coming weeks. Significant questions were
unresolved in their outline, including what kind of system to
create for allowing future visa applicants.
Senate Democrats hope to pass a bill by mid-year with a
large, bipartisan vote that could improve chances for passage of
a bill in the Republican-controlled House.
However, House Republican leaders have not committed to
passing an immigration bill this year.
Reformers and minority groups are hoping the legislative
effort gets a boost from conservative Representative Trey Gowdy
of South Carolina, the new chairman of the House's immigration
On Tuesday, Gowdy captured the attention of the crowded
House hearing room when he detailed the story of a 12-year-old
immigrant from Sierra Leone whose hands were cut off by soldiers
with machetes during the civil war in her country.
She "tried to run, tried to hide, asked God to let her die,"
But in a reference to those who have crossed into the United
States illegally, he also warned that the federal government
must enforce the laws it has on the books.
"What we cannot become is a nation where the law is enforced
selectively, or not at all," Gowdy said.