Jun. 18, 2013 9:17 PM
Mary Orndorff Troyan

WASHINGTON — A House GOP proposal that would deputize state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws remained largely intact during committee votes Tuesday, despite efforts by Democrats to derail it.

The House Judiciary Committee was still debating amendments late Tuesday and was expected to continue working Wednesday on what will probably be the first of several Republican immigration bills to reach the House floor.

Republicans, led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, hailed the enforcement proposal as a crucial first step toward restoring the public’s faith that federal officials will reduce the number of people entering the country illegally.

Democrats say the proposal would unfairly criminalize 11 million people in the country without permission. Several Democratic amendments to strip entire sections of the bill were defeated by the committee’s Republican majority.

The committee is working on separate proposals that involve agricultural workers, verifying the legal status of employees, improving border security and other issues.

“Hopefully what will emerge at the end is an immigration system worthy of the trust of the people we work for,” said Gowdy, chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security and sponsor of the enforcement proposal, called the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act.

Goodlatte, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has insisted the House deal with immigration reform in pieces rather than as a single comprehensive bill, as the Senate is doing.

“We can’t just be fixated on securing the border,” Goodlatte said. “We must also focus on what to do with aliens who make it past the border and legal immigrants who violate the terms of their visas.”

Immigration advocacy groups attacked Gowdy’s bill as an extreme enforcement-only proposal that targets all illegal immigrants as criminals.

Tuesday’s proceedings were delayed when several people, some wearing signs under their shirts saying “remember November,” chanted “shame, shame, shame.” Latinos voted overwhelmingly Democratic in November’s presidential election, and some Republicans say immigration reform is key to reversing that trend.

Democrats declared Gowdy’s legislation a non-starter that would lead to racial profiling and a roundup of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

“By immediately converting all police officers into immigration agents this bill will effectively force them to make public safety a distant second priority,” said the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

Gowdy’s bill would offer incentives for states to pass and enforce their own immigration laws and would beef up federal resources for detaining, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants who break other laws while in the U.S.

The most controversial piece of Gowdy’s proposal would immediately criminalize all illegal immigrants in the country. His bill — as amended by Goodlatte — would make it a federal misdemeanor to be “unlawfully present” in the country.

Democrats aren’t the only ones opposed to that. The issue exposed a surprising divide among Republicans at Tuesday’s committee meeting.

Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., unsuccessfully proposed making the 11 million illegal immigrants exempt from the misdemeanor charge in order to give Congress time to put them on a path to legal status or citizenship, a provision in the bipartisan Senate bill.

His amendment would have applied the extra criminal penalties only to future immigrants who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas starting in 2015.

“Some of us have said we don’t want this to apply to those already in our country that we will at some point legalize,” said Bachus.

Bachus, an 11-term veteran who occasionally bucks his party, already has declared his support for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship.

He opposed Alabama’s tough immigration law — modeled on one in Arizona — that requires local law enforcement officers to inquire about a person’s citizenship status if the officer believes the person may be in the country illegally.

Some Republicans on the Judiciary Committee supported Bachus’ amendment, including Goodlatte, Gowdy and six others. Democrats applauded Bachus’ effort to avoid turning all 11 million into criminals, but they opposed his amendment because it would not have given illegal immigrants a chance to gain legal status.

“Being alive and breathing in this country hasn’t been a crime before and I don’t think it should become a crime,” said Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

Bachus’ amendment was defeated 10-24. He said outside the hearing room he would try again, possibly on the House floor.

“I don’t think there’s a willingness to compromise by many of the members on either side,” he said.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., voted against Bachus’ amendment because he said he didn’t want to add more criminal penalties for immigrants, even starting in 2015. But he praised Bachus’ attempt to make Gowdy’s bill less punitive.

“I’m happy he proposed it,” Gutierrez said. “The purpose of his amendment it seems to me is... ‘I don’t want to jail them before I give them a chance to live free in America.’”

Gowdy’s bill would provide grants to local and state law enforcement and calls for an increase in the amount of space used to detain illegal immigrants. It would add 2,500 detention enforcement officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as 60 ICE attorneys, 5,000 deportation officers, and 700 support staff.

The bill’s cost has not yet been estimated.

Late in the day, Democrats successfully pushed for a change in how long authorities can detain illegal immigrants who have already served their incarceration time on other charges.

Gowdy’s bill originally allowed for an additional 14 days to give immigration officials time to determine if a detainee is eligible for deportation. Goodlatte changed the extra detention time to 48 hours after Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., complained 14 days would be too long to hold someone who may not be deportable.