It was perhaps the one topic that received bipartisan attention Tuesday night — from President Obama during his State of the Union address, in the official Republican response delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and in the tea party’s response to the response: the need to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
But despite the bipartisan call for broad action, partisan divides on how the complex topic should be tackled were on display Wednesday as the Senate held its first substantive hearing on the path forward.
Several Republicans on the key Judiciary Committee complained that the nation’s borders are not secure and that the latest efforts to change laws could lead to a new attempt at amnesty for illegal immigrants similar to those they have helped derail in the past.
Some Democrats stressed that a legal rewrite must recognize the rights of same-sex immigrant couples, an issue some Republicans involved in the effort have said could cost GOP support.
Still, members of Congress involved with bipartisan efforts to push immigration changes said Wednesday that they were encouraged by the urgency expressed by Obama during his State of the Union address and that they will move ahead quickly while the nation’s attention is focused on the issue.
The four Democrats involved in a bipartisan group of eight senators who released a framework for revamping the system last month huddled with Obama at the White House on Wednesday to update him as they work to translate the brief document into a complicated bill. Congressional aides said the group briefed Obama on the ongoing talks during a meeting that lasted just under an hour. They assured him that negotiations are progressing well, that both sides are working in good faith and that they remain confident the group will be able to agree to a bill for proposal in coming weeks, aides said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Judiciary Committee and the bipartisan group, told others on the panel Wednesday that the senators are “on track” to produce a bill by their targeted March time frame.
Schumer said Obama’s remarks on the issue Tuesday had been “just right.”
“He did not make it a wedge issue,” Schumer said. “He made it clear we have to act in a bipartisan way and gave us the space in our little group to come up with a bipartisan proposal.”
Later in the hearing, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), another member of the group, asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano whether she had ever seen a better opportunity for a comprehensive bill.
“No,” she replied. “This is the moment.”
Napolitano told the committee that the U.S. border has never been more secure, describing efforts undertaken by Obama to enforce current law, including deporting more than 400,000 people since he took office.
“Our border is better staffed with more people, infrastructure and technology than at any time in our nation’s history,” she said.
The administration’s stepped-up deportation policy has not been popular with many immigrants, who say that despite an Obama promise to prioritize immigrants who have committed serious crimes, the deportations have swept up those with otherwise clean records and have separated families.
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