WASHINGTON – A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist offered heartfelt testimony about being an undocumented immigrant and the secretary of homeland security got heckled as a Senate hearing on immigration opened debate Wednesday on the emotionally charged issue.
“Our America is part of the continuing and evolving story of the immigrant nation that is our country,” said writer Jose Antonio Vargas, who revealed his undocumented status in a personal manifesto in The New York Times Magazine two years ago.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing opened with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who plowed through her remarks even after she was interrupted by protestors in the committee audience.
“Stop the deportations,” a handful of demonstrators chanted before being escorted out of the room by police.
Unfazed, Napolitano continued her statement in support of Obama’s immigration guidelines, including employer verification with E-Verify, a system of identifying documented. The president also thinks law-abiding undocumented workers should have the opportunity to get on a pathway toward citizenship. “Our immigration system is sorely out of date and it is time to fix it,” Napolitano said. “The principles outlined by President Obama — which are largely consistent with the Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform — will address long standing problems.”
The Judiciary Committee, headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., anticipates legislation from the “Gang of Eight.” Four Democratic and four Republican senators are working to create a bipartisan solution to the problem of illegal immigration – much of originating on the border with Mexico.
“I want this committee to complete work on such a bill over the next few months,” Sen. Leahy said. “Too many have waited too long for fairness.”
As immigration reform remains a national concern, it is part of the agenda on each side of the aisle. As Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told Napolitano, “Democrats and Republicans are not that far apart on these issues.”
“We have to resolve the contentious issues before we look at our bipartisan agreements,” said Lee, who plans on reintroducing the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act — a bill that allows workers to be recruited based on their talent, rather than country of origin.
Indeed, advocates and lawmakers have their different concerns. Perhaps the biggest debate before the panel Wednesday was over the state of “border security.”
“The border is secure,” Napolitano told the committee. “But that needs to be sustained.” Top committee Republican, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, questioned whether undocumented immigrants who commit crimes could receive amnesty under some proposals.
Leahy, the chairman, said he would join Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, in introducing the United American Families Act, intended to combats workplace discrimination against immigrants and gays.
In the Capitol Hill audience, immigrant worker Otilio Isidoro said he had toiled as a say laborer in Seattle for eight years. “We’re here to express ourselves in spite for a constant fear,” he said. “I know for a fact that my dream is shared by thousands — to have a fair paying job, to be part of a community, to support my family and to support my country, America.”
Since his time as a journalist, Vargas went on to launch Define American, an organization advocating for immigration reform, including the DREAM Act, a plan to help immigrant children achieve citizenship.