The Senate formally took up the question of immigration on Wednesday, with an at-times testy hearing about how to deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee insisted nothing should be done until border security is increased even further.
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Today, the Senate took its first formal step toward overhauling immigration laws. The Judiciary Committee held a hearing to discuss what new legislation should look like. And while changing immigration law has become a bipartisan cause since the 2012 election, Republicans still presented some stiff resistance.
NPR's David Welna has the story.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy opened today's immigration hearing with a warning that a bill on this politically hot issue has to be produced soon before enthusiasm wanes.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: I would say to everybody the window of opportunity will not stay open long. We're going to act on this issue. We have to do it without delay. And I hope today's hearing helps to emphasize the urgency of the situation.
WELNA: The panel's top Republican, Charles Grassley of Iowa, declared that he for one had seen it all before.
SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: I voted for the 1986 amnesty because I believed it was a onetime solution to our problem. I was wrong. And today, we're forced to deal with the same problem and the same arguments and the same ideas of how to improve the situation.
WELNA: The hearing room was filled with people who could be directly affected by changes in immigration laws. Their anger over the Obama administration's tough enforcement of current laws became audible as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano began addressing the committee as the lead witness.
SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: I now serve as the chief enforcer of immigration law and the chief administrator of immigration services. I have dealt with immigration law and policy...
(PEOPLE TALKING AND SHOUTING)
LEAHY: The committee will stand in recess until the police can restore order. The police will restore order.
WELNA: Napolitano soon resumed, assuring the panel that, in her words, our borders have, in fact, never been stronger. The former Arizona governor said much has changed since Ronald Reagan signed what many consider to have been an amnesty for 3 million undocumented immigrants.
NAPOLITANO: In 1986, the then-INS removed, I think, about 25,000 individuals from the country. Last year, we removed 409,000. It's a record number. Fifty-five percent of those had other criminal convictions, by the way. But it's the enforcement of - and the removals that have caused some of the tensions that we saw expressed earlier today.
WELNA: Napolitano was followed at the witness table by a former Washington Post reporter.
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I come to you as one of our country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
WELNA: Jose Antonio Vargas told the panel that he has been unable to obtain U.S. citizenship since being brought to the country as a child by his grandfather from the Philippines more than two decades ago.
VARGAS: For all the undocumented immigrants who are actually sitting here at this hearing, for the people watching online and for the 11 million of us: What do you want to do with us?
WELNA: Another witness offered an answer. Janet Murguia heads the National Council of La Raza.
JANET MURGUIA: The single most essential element of immigration reform is an earned legalization program with a clear, achievable road map to citizenship.
WELNA: It's a road map that's been embraced by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who put this question to Napolitano.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Have you ever seen a better opportunity than the moment that exists today to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would prevent a third wave?
NAPOLITANO: No, this is the moment.
WELNA: Graham and other Republicans are insisting that before any illegal immigrants have a shot at citizenship, a commission must first establish that the borders are indeed secure. But Alabama's Jeff Sessions was one of several Republicans on the panel who said, essentially, not so fast.
SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: And we're not going to be taking a pig in a poke. And there's a lot of overconfidence about this bill.
WELNA: Sessions warned that any immigration bill will be getting a lot of scrutiny from him and others.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.