WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was shouted down Monday during a contentious immigration reform hearing after accusing Republicans of using the Boston terrorist attack as a delay tactic to stall a bill he claims might have prevented the bombings.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was forced to postpone key testimony of Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano when the hearings began Friday because of last week’s bombings and manhunt that shut down the Boston area.
Additionally, lawmakers suggested that the immigration process the Chechen suspects completed to become U.S. citizens should be reviewed for potential flaws as part of the ongoing Congressional examination of omnibus legislation crafted by the so-called “Gang of Eight.”
Monday’s outburst came during Schumer’s opening remarks as he criticized three witnesses who planned to testify against the 800-page bill, and then he turned his attention to last week’s tragedy.
“If you have ways to improve the bill, offer an amendment and let’s vote on it,” Schumer said.
“I say that particularly to those who are pointing to what happened, the terrible tragedy in Boston, as a, I would say, an excuse for not doing the bill or delaying it many months or years,” Schumer said.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the normally reserved and polite ranking member of the panel, interrupted the New Yorker shouting “I never said that!” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also interjected his objection to Schumer’s treatment of the opposing witnesses, only a handful of the nearly 25 called for the daylong hearing.
“Those remarks were not aimed at this committee or those three witnesses,” Schumer said. “There are people out there, you’ve read it in the newspapers, who’ve said it and what I’m saying is if there are things that come up as a result of what happened in Boston that require improvement, let’s add it to the bill,” Schumer said.
“Because certainly our bill tightens up things in a way that would make a Boston (attack) less likely,” said Schumer, citing changes in the exit and entry system and a registration system for 11 million illegal immigrants.
“All of that makes it a tighter bill,” Schumer said.
The bombing suspects are ethnic Chechens, brothers who came to the U.S. in the last decade with their father who later sought asylum.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), committee chairman, also accused critics of the bill of exploiting the bombings.
“Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people,” Leahy said. “The bill before us would serve to strengthen our national security by allowing us to focus our border security and enforcement efforts against those who would do us harm. But a nation as strong as ours can welcome the oppressed and persecuted without making compromises.”
Primarily the bill creates a legalization process for millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and requires that a plan be devised to tighten border security.
Although the bill was crafted by a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers, partisan lines were quickly drawn with Republicans opposing what they say amounts to amnesty for the 11 million illegal immigrants.
If the bill includes elements that are deeply divisive like amnesty, without a broad bipartisan agreement on border security, the bill has little chance of passage, said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Numerous pet projects of the authors are included in the bill, including language adding foreign ski instructors in a work program for professional athletes that was crafted by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
Bennet is not a member of the Judiciary Committee so he is not participating in the hearings.
However, Megan Smith, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, told the panel how the bill’s language would benefit seasonal tourism industries.
“Ski resorts in the winter and beach communities in the summers rely on these workers who not only prove to be excellent employees but bring a cultural experience to states that do not necessarily enjoy a great deal of diversity,” Smith said.
Former Denver Mayor Bill Vidal shared his personal story as an immigrant child growing up in a Pueblo orphanage, and urged the committee to pass a bill that would legalize those already in the country and to help keep families together.
“Unfortunately, over the years, indecisiveness and lack of action on comprehensive immigration reform has resulted in a dysfunctional system that has confiscated the respect we once held for immigrants and replaced it with a fear and ignorance that has dehumanized these individuals to the point that they are looked down upon as human throwaways,” Vidal said.
Laura Lichter of Denver, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, also appeared before the committee to discuss how immigration laws could include same sex families, protect refugees and asylum seekers, and reduce detention as a means for detaining illegals.
The cost of detention has increased over the past seven years from $864 million to more than $2 billion, Lichter said.
“Spending billions of taxpayer dollars to needlessly detain immigrants who could successfully and safely be released is a poor use of limited resources,” Lichter said.
The leader of a farm workers union told lawmakers that citizenship for illegals means the ability to unionize those field hands, and a farmers’ cooperative official said that labor force is needed to prevent food production from moving overseas.
“This bill is the right balance for producing quality, cheap food, instead of importing it,” said Charles Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
Alyson Eastman who assists labor workers in Vermont said shifting the authority to approve work permits from the Labor to the Agriculture Department would be a simple fix for many farms seeking temporary workers.
A turkey farm, for example, faced numerous bureaucratic hurdles because Labor officials did not understand why temporary workers were needed from October through November to slaughter the animals and therefore required the owners to produce two years of documents to prove the necessity.
“I don’t know what they have on their table for Thanksgiving, but they clearly did not understand,” Eastman said.
The hearings will continue Tuesday with testimony from Napolitano, and the committee plans on passing a bill to the Senate floor for consideration in May.