Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told a packed hearing today that President Obama was "right - now is the time," when he called on Congress during his State of the Union Tuesday to push through a comprehensive immigration overhaul, advocating a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Some Republicans, though, maintained it's not that easy.
Discords during the contentious hearing centered primarily on border security - the key qualification on the table from a bipartisan group of senators currently drafting a proposal for immigration reform. The "gang of eight," which includes Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., says Congress needs to improve on enforcing current laws and tightening U.S. border control before opening up a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Testifying before the committee, Jose Antonio Vargas - a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and perhaps the country's most famous undocumented immigrant - asked the committee, "What do you want to do with me?" and challenged the use of the term "illegal."
"When you inaccurately call me 'illegal,' you're not only dehumanizing me, you're offending them; no human being is illegal," Vargas said. "In 21st century America, diversity is destiny. That I speak Tagalog, my first language; that I happen to be gay; that I was born in the Philippines - none of that threatens my love for this country."
Preceding Vargas as a witness was Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who advocated for an end to deportations, and rebuffed the border security prerequisite.
"Too often," Napolitano argued, "the border security refrain simply serves as an excuse. Our borders have in fact never been stronger."
But several committee Republicans rejected that observation, and contested what they characterized as Napolitano's and Leahy's support for "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.
"You mean amnesty only? You really mean we're not going to have enforcement - we've got to have amnesty first?" asked Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "I truly believe, had this administration done a better job of enforcement, been more effective in moving forward with a lawful system of immigration, you would be in a much stronger position with the American people who ask for a more broad solution to the problem."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, agreed: "I do not believe the border is secure, and I still believe we have a long, long way to go."
Protestors wielding anti-deportation signs interrupted the hearing several times, and were escorted out by Capitol Police.
After a year of deporting a record 409,000 undocumented immigrants, Mr. Obama has taken up immigration as a top priority on his 2013 agenda, along with gun control. Citing a broader bipartisan reach for immigration reform, he has said he hopes to have a new law in place within the next six months.
Leahy echoed that goal, announcing at the hearing that he wants his committee to have a bill completed in "the next few months," before election season hardens partisan divides: "Too many have been waiting too long for fairness," he said. "Our window of opportunity will not stay open long. If we are going to act on this issue, we must do so without delay."