House Committee Would Criminalize Being Undocumented

One small step for immigration in the Senate, one giant leap backward in the House?

While the Senate was working to amend the bipartisan immigration bill on the floor, the House Judiciary Committee was busy late Tuesday night passing its piecemeal approach to immigration overhaul.

First step, making it a federal crime (misdemeanor) to be in the United States with undocumented status and repealing DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), better known as the DREAM Act, that provides temporary status to people brought to the United States as children and were younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012.

Similar amendments were passed last week as part of the 2014 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. So the committee action was no surprise. But for a Republican Party that is trying to win back Latino voters, it could be trouble.

The committee approved 20-15, along party lines, the SAFE Act (Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act), making unlawful presence in United States a federal crime, as well as an effectively killing the DREAM Act,

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., are co-sponsors of the SAFE Act.

The SAFE Act has been compared to Arizona's SB 1070 with a provision that allows states to enforce and enact their own immigration laws, as well as allowing state or local police "specific congressional authorization to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law."

The bill also makes it a crime to overstay a visa by as little as one day.

Protestors chanting "shame, shame, shame, stop the pain" and "Si, se puede" ("Yes, We Can") caused a momentary pause in the committee at the beginning of the proceedings.

After they escorted protestors out of the room, Capitol police were asked to remove them from the hall because their chants were still "disruptive."

After the initial disruption, additional members of the audience put on blue graduation caps and gowns.

Goodlatte recognized their attire, saying they are showing "us they are graduates of high school or college," but added that "if you are intent upon staying and listening to this very important debate, you are welcome to stay," but without protesting.

The hashtag #HATEact was being used by opponents of the legislation on social media.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Goodlatte said the legislation was necessary because "liberal courts give us no alternative if we want to allow state and local law enforcement to assist in the enforcement of our immigration laws."

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa., said the need for the legislation was Obama's fault. "The president has defied the law … that's a big reason why we are here today," he said.

But Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the legislation makes "being alive and breathing" in the United States a crime.

"I cannot support making mere presence a crime in America," she said.

John Conyers, D-Mich., added, "This is not only a terrible proposal but an inhumane policy as well."

Rep. Spencer Bachus, R.Ala., offered an amendment that would have delayed criminalization until 2015, thereby allowing time for immigration overhaul and the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to be considered legal and thereby exempt.

But that failed even among the handful of GOPers, including Goodlatte and former House "Gang of 8? member Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, voting for the delay.

When arguing for the repeal of the DREAM Act, amendment sponsor King said the president exceeded his presidential authority by ordering law enforcement to ignore elements of the law.

"That is not prosecutorial discretion, that is anarchy," he said. "Process matters. It's the reason why we have something called substantive due process and procedural due process, not just the result we reach, it is the matter in which we get there."

Democrats argued that the president couldn't have exceeded his prosecutorial discretion because Congress gave him the authority.

A number of Democratic amendments that would have stripped language allowing for racial profiling and criminalizing family members under trafficking laws were struck down by the Republican majority committee.