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On immigration reform, House GOP plays hardball on 'enforcement'

House Republicans open their bid to overhaul the US immigration system by giving local law officers more authority to enforce immigration laws, in sharp contrast with the Senate bill.

By Staff writer / June 18, 2013

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia (l.) and Rep. George Holding (R) of North Carolina (r.) listen to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington during a committee hearing on immigration reform.

Susan Walsch/AP

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WASHINGTON

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is expected to hurl a brushback pitch to congressional Democrats on Tuesday when his committee takes up a tough immigration enforcement measure as the House's first official step toward immigration reform.

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Specifically, the measure would empower state and local governments to take part in enforcing federal immigration law, and it is expected to pass. 

Why is Representative Goodlatte taking a step that many Democrats on his committee and immigration advocates see as provocative? Just like a fastball, high and inside, it’s about sending a signal.

Enforcing immigration laws in America’s interior “is the place where we think the Senate bill is absolutely the weakest, and it is the place where, in 1986, there was an easy pathway to citizenship for 3 million people and then enforcement never really happened,” says Goodlatte, referring to the last year in which Congress approved comprehensive immigration reform legislation. “We hope this [topic] will be highlighted because we think it’s been neglected in other places,” he adds.

While Tuesday’s first pitch is hard to handle and is generating a storm of vituperation from the left, Goodlatte says Republicans aren't singularly interested in hardball. In fact, in the weeks to come, Goodlatte plans to move a bill offering a way for some 11 million undocumented people already in the US to become permanent residents and citizens, a central component for immigration reform for his Democratic colleagues.

In the Senate's comprehensive reform bill, a nationwide E-Verify system for determining a prospective employee’s true identity is the main interior enforcement measure.

By contrast, the House SAFE Act, cosponsored by Goodlatte and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, will allow state and local public safety authorities to take on some immigration-enforcement roles. (Other provisions include beefing up the weapons and body armor available to some federal immigration enforcers.) The legislation will be amended and probably approve on Tuesday morning in a panel that tilts heavily toward Republicans.

That’s the controversial approach that had hard-edged application by state governments such as Arizona’s. The state’s immigration law, known as SB 1070, was struck down in part by the US Supreme Court last year because it attempted to overstep federal immigration authority. GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney endorsed the Arizona law as a model for national immigration policy and was summarily walloped by President Obama among Hispanic voters.

Goodlatte says he understands the passions such proposals stir in Democrats – but that avoiding a repetition of the 1986 immigration amnesty burns just as hot for Republicans.

Whereas Democrats and immigrant advocates see the House bill as a back-to-the-future moment for Republican politics, Goodlatte sees delegating some enforcement authority away from the federal government as a check on future presidents of either party.

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