Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador fought for a sweeping immigration enforcement bill Thursday that would add 12,500 additional armed federal immigration officers, penalize sanctuary cities, enlist state and local police in federal immigration enforcement, impose new criminal penalties and step up detentions and deportations.
“For too long, we have allowed individuals to enter our country illegally and in too many cases to do us harm,” Labrador declared, as the House Judiciary Committee took up his bill. “This is a critical first step to ensuring that the American people feel confident that our laws are being enforced.”
At a stormy markup session in the committee on Thursday, Democrats charged that the bill has serious constitutional problems, would waste billions on rounding up and detaining people who pose no danger, and would increase crime in U.S. communities by forcing undocumented people “into the shadows” where they’d be afraid to report crimes they’d witnessed or suffered for fear of deportation.
“Let’s call it what it is: This is President Trump’s mass deportation act,” said Rep. David Cicilline, R-Rhode Island. “And it is based on a notion that immigrants endanger our lives.”
“This bill not only makes our communities less safe, but it really does change and will change the very character of our country,” he said. “We are better than this.”
Labrador, a Republican, strongly disagreed that the bill would increase crime.
“They believe that enforcing the law threatens public safety,” he said. “That is the most preposterous and outrageous argument that I’ve ever heard, and I believe it’s time that we start enforcing immigration laws.”
He said he wants all Americans to “feel safe and secure, so we should put them first, ahead of the 11 million that are here illegally.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the bill would “turn our communities into police states overnight.”
“I’m left wondering whether anti-immigrant rhetoric has so invaded some of us that we’re no longer to embrace fundamental ideals embodied in our Constitution,” Lofgren said.
Several of the critics said they weren’t surprised that the bill was on “Steve Bannon’s white board” – referring to President Trump’s adviser – but they were surprised the committee was taking it up. They complained that the 184-page bill never had a hearing, and instead proceeded directly to markup, in which committee members can offer amendments.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, who is co-sponsoring Labrador’s bill and chairs the committee, said a lack of enforcement of immigration rules harms the rule of law.
“The underlying purpose of this bill is not to disrespect immigrants, most of whom have entered the United States legally, because the United States has the most generous legal immigration programs in the world, but it is to make sure that we respect the rule of law,” Goodlatte said. “Yes, many people who are here illegally don’t commit additional crimes, but the very act of entering the country illegally is a crime.”
He said the bill would “make sure that those individuals can be properly detained until they are properly removed to their home country.”
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, proposed an amendment to strike the first title of the bill and removing many of the provisions, including state and local enforcement of federal immigration laws and expansion of federal detention space. It was voted down on a party-line vote.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, then proposed an amendment to remove a single clause that would make it a crime to be unlawfully present in the United States. While it’s currently a misdemeanor to enter the country illegally, charges can’t be pressed after five years, and for those who enter the country illegally but overstay their visas, there’s not a specific criminal penalty.
Nadler said that would create a new “status offense” with no statute of limitations, and someone who overstayed their visa 20 years ago would suddenly become a criminal.
“It would turn millions of Americans into criminals overnight,” Nadler said. “Under this bill, if you overstay your visa for one day, you could go to prison for six months. … A lot of tourists, a lot of people whose airline flights got canceled would suddenly be criminals.”
Labrador defended the provision, but after much debate, said he’d consider altering it to include time frames.
“We don’t want anybody to be found to violate the law because just all of a sudden they had an oversight or they just had a couple of days of overstay,” he said. “So I will be working on that.”
Shortly thereafter, the committee ran out of time and the session concluded. The markup session will continue next week.
Labrador sparred repeatedly with opponents of his bill, who said what’s needed is comprehensive immigration reform, not an enforcement crackdown. He said he’s supported bipartisan bills to fix individual pieces of the nation’s immigration system, but the Senate wouldn’t take them up because senators wanted a comprehensive reform bill.
“That’s why we continue to have a broken immigration system, because some people continue to use immigration as a political tool instead of fixing the problems that we have,” Labrador said, adding that he believes lack of enforcement is one of the main problems.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., noted that the Senate did pass a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, but then-House Speaker John Boehner never allowed it to come up for a House vote.
Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman to serve in the U.S. House, said it took her 18 years to become an American citizen.
“The underlying system is broken,” she said, “so criminalizing 11 million immigrants across the country is not only inhumane, it doesn’t solve any problem.”
Labrador said he’s long worked for immigration reform.
“But the first and most crucial step in that process is ensuring enforcement of our current laws,” he said. “While other reforms are needed, this bill is vital to a long-term fix.”
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