WASHINGTON -- A seven-hour Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Monday turned from immigration reform's merits to discussions of self-deportation, the Bible and the bombing in Boston.
The key point from senators pushing immigration reform was that the American people are siding with them, not those who want to block reform. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the "gang of eight" that released an immigration bill last week, gave his harsh assessment to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. As a witness at the hearing, Kobach continued to push the "self-deport" concept to stem unauthorized immigration, though the phrase is credited with partially sinking former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
"Self-deportation is not some radical idea," Kobach said.
"You're an elected official in Kansas, correct?" Durbin asked. "So am I, I'm an elected official in Illinois. And what we have basically said is ultimately voters have the last word. Voters had the last word on self-deportation on Nov. 6. So we're beyond that now."
The committee spent the more than seven hours considering an 844-page immigration reform bill put forward by the gang of eight, and heard testimonies from 23 witnesses. The gang of eight bill would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, along with an overhaul of the legal immigration system and border security improvements that would trigger further steps toward legalization for the U.S.' undocumented population.
There are a number of reform supporters on the Judiciary committee, including Durbin and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), all members of the gang of eight.
The division at the hearing between the reform-supporting senators and skeptics on the right was obvious. At one point, the hearing featured the somewhat awkward group of Kobach; Gaby Pacheco, a young undocumented immigrant activist; Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for restricting even legal immigration; and Dr. David Fleming, an evangelical and reform supporter and the senior pastor of Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston. Chris Crane, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement union president, testified later in opposition to reform.
The panelists served as a broad cross section of immigration reform supporters and detractors, with gang of eight members arguing the critics weren't exactly representative of the general population. Schumer began his remarks by specifically knocking Kobach, Krikorian and Crane as "the only witnesses who are willing to testify against the bill" for narrow interests. "These three are not mainstream witnesses," he said, prompting Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to say he did not "appreciate the senator demeaning the witnesses."
When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the Senate should focus on piecemeal reforms both parties could agree to, such as strengthening border security, Graham rejected his argument. "The first consensus we've reached is the current system is not working," he said to his "friend from Texas," citing poll numbers that show majority support for reform.
The senators had another tense moment when Schumer accused others of using the bombings in Boston last week to derail immigration reform, seemingly a veiled reference to Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) comments in a previous hearing that elements of the gang of eight bill should be reconsidered because the suspects in the Boston bombing were immigrants. Schumer said opponents seemed to be using the tragedy to slow the bill, and Grassley interrupted. "I never said that," he interjected. Schumer denied he'd made such an accusation. "I didn't say you did," he replied.
Most of the Republican senators who may oppose the bill in the end did not specifically pledge to do so. But Krikorian and Kobach acknowledged that, at least for them, any pathway to citizenship would be unacceptable.
"I don't mean to be flip about it, but this [bill] could have been subheded, 'No Illegal Alien Left Behind,'" Krikorian said at one point.
Republican senators, meanwhile, went after some of the pro-reform witnesses. Sessions sparred with Fleming, the evangelical supporter of immigration reform, over how the Bible would address the issue. Fleming is part of a broader movement by religious leaders who want changes to the immigration system, including a pathway to citizenship that many Republicans question. Evangelicals, especially, have tried to use the Bible to argue for reform as a moral imperative, and Fleming made the same points.
Sessions wasn't having it.
"I don't believe that there's scriptural basis for the idea that a modern nation state can't have a lawful system of immigration and is somehow prohibited from enforcing legitimate laws. ... I really feel strongly about that," he said to Fleming.
He went on to quote a number of Biblical passages, and specifically rejected Fleming's reference to part of Leviticus 19: "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born."
"I think this idea that somehow love, statements in Leviticus 19, is not the kind of thing that would indicate that we shouldn't have laws," Sessions said. "Some people have been citing the scripture, I think, pretty loosely," he added.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) tried later to get the hearing back on track and off religious debates.
"I would note as much as I enjoy being chairman of Judiciary, I just want to amend the U.S. code, I'm not trying to amend Genesis or any other part of the Bible," Leahy said to Sessions. "I appreciate the Bible lesson, but we'll stick to [the law]."
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