WASHINGTON — A key committee in the Republican-led House is preparing to cast its first votes on immigration this year, on a tough enforcement-focused measure that Democrats and immigrant groups are protesting loudly.
Meanwhile in the Senate, a Republican lawmaker is floating a compromise border security proposal he hopes can win over support for sweeping immigration legislation under consideration there.
The House enforcement bill, by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., would empower state and local officials to enforce federal immigration laws, make passport and visa fraud into aggravated felonies subject to deportation, funnel money into building more detention centers, and crack down on immigrants suspected of posing dangers.
Gowdy said the measure, which the House Judiciary Committee takes up Tuesday, would ensure enforcement of immigration laws he accused the Obama administration of ignoring, and offer the promise of real security.
"Nothing undercuts the fabric of this republic like people picking and choosing which laws they're going to enforce, when they're going to do it, when it's politically opportune for them not to do it," Gowdy said at a recent hearing on his bill, the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act. Of local law enforcement, he said, "If you're good enough to do homicide cases then I trust you to do immigration cases."
Democrats and immigrant groups said Gowdy's legislation represents bad policy and bad politics by House Republicans at a moment when the Senate is considering a comprehensive bill including a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants here illegally.
"A piece of legislation to put a bull's-eye on the forehead of every Latino in America is just wrongheaded, is the most diplomatic way to describe it," said Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. "Boy, is this disheartening to see."
The move by the House committee comes less than two weeks after the full House voted to overturn President Barack Obama's 2012 election-year order to stop deportations of many immigrants brought here illegally as youths.
Together the two moves show the challenges ahead in getting a comprehensive immigration bill through Congress this year, as Obama wants. For many House conservatives, the priorities when it comes to immigration remain enforcing the laws and securing the border, not allowing the millions here illegally to gain legal status or citizenship.
Border security also is at issue in the Democratic-led Senate, where senators have been jousting over how to strengthen the provisions in a far-reaching bill being considered on the floor this week to remake the nation's immigration laws. At the heart of the bill is a 13-year path to citizenship for people now here illegally, but it is contingent on certain border security goals being met.
Republican critics say those "triggers" are too weak and have been demanding amendments to strengthen them. The Senate planned to vote Tuesday on an amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., requiring 700 miles of double-layered border fencing before anyone here illegally could get a permanent resident green card.
A more far-reaching proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has been getting attention, but Democrats and some Republicans have dismissed it as a "poison pill" because it would require 90 percent of people attempting to cross the border to be stopped before anyone here illegally could get a permanent resident green card.
The underlying bill also has the 90 percent figure as a goal, but doesn't make the path to citizenship directly contingent on achieving it.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told The Associated Press Monday night that he has been working on an alternative with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and others. Hoeven said his proposal also would require the 90 percent apprehension rate to be met before immigrants could get green cards. But he said his plan, unlike Cornyn's amendment, would make the 90 percent rate objective and achievable by specifying all the equipment and technology the border patrol says it needs to achieve the rate in each of the nine southwest border sectors, and carefully tracking attempted crossings.
Hoeven said he hoped to unveil his amendment in the next day or two and said it could garner the support needed to get bipartisan support for the immigration bill.
"Our effort is to get good legislation that truly secures the border," Hoeven said. "That people feel it's fair and it's not amnesty ... so we can get really a bipartisan consensus."
However, Hoeven's amendment could encounter skepticism from immigrant groups and Democrats who want to be sure that the bill doesn't change in a way that makes the path to citizenship harder to achieve.