SAFE Act amended to make unlawful presence in the US a federal crime

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    4-year-old girl in a t-shirt that reads "Don't Deport my Dad" sits in a hallway during SAFE Act hearings.

    Jackelin Alfaro, 4, in a t-shirt that reads “Don’t Deport my Dad” sits outside the House Judiciary Committee surrounded by family, as the committee discussed the SAFE Act on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

    In its deepest dive yet into immigration reform, the House Judiciary Committee has approved the SAFE Act, a controversial enforcement-centered bill that is being rejected by Democrats and immigrant rights groups. One of the bill’s most controversial parts? Trying to make undocumented immigrants federal criminals.

    During markup on Tuesday, the House committee approved — on a 21-15 party-line vote — an amendment to the bill that would make an unlawful presence in the United States a federal crime. Unlawful presence is currently considered a civil offense. The amendment was proposed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).

    The SAFE Act — which stands for Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act — would allow states to enact and enforce their own immigration laws as long as they’re consistent with federal law. It would also allow local police officers to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law. At the end of the day, the committee approved the bill in a late-night, 20-15 vote.

    The bill was introduced by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who said the bill “represents a common sense approach to the enforcement of our nation’s laws.”

    Another amendment introduced sought to delay the further criminalization of unlawful presence until 2015, by which time Congress would have passed an immigration reform bill with a path to legalization. But that amendment, offered by Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), was rejected on a 10-24 vote.

    The SAFE Act is part of the House’s piecemeal approach to immigration reform, as a bipartisan group struggles to finalize a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Meanwhile, the Senate is debating its own immigration package.

    “We have, and will continue, to take a step-by-step approach to immigration reform, thoroughly examining each piece in detail,” said Goodlatte in his opening statement Tuesday. “Today’s markup is important to the immigration debate and the future enforcement of our laws, but it’s important to note that it’s one component of the larger process.”

    Protesters interrupt House Judiciary Committee

    Protesters against the SAFE Act.

    People shout out against the SAFE Act in the hall outside the House Judiciary Committee hearing. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

    The SAFE Act has turned into a contentious piece of legislation for many Latino and immigrant rights leaders. Dozens of them expressed their opposition to the bill on Tuesday by briefly interrupting the start of the House Judiciary Committee hearing.

    Just as Goodlatte ordered to commence the hearing, they got up and chanted, “Shame, shame, shame! Stop the pain!”

    Goodlatte threatened to have Capitol Police remove the individuals, and even Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) said the demonstration was “unhelpful to their cause.” The protestors were ultimately ushered out of the room, but their chants could still be heard in the hallways for a few minutes.

    Goodlatte proceeded to defend the SAFE Act, saying it is “an integral piece of the puzzle” and that it “decisively strengthens federal immigration enforcement.”

    “In 1986, Americans were promised vigorous interior enforcement but that promise was never kept,” he said. “Today, nearly 30 years later, this Committee is marking up an immigration bill which delivers the robust interior enforcement that Americans demand. It is a fulfillment of our longstanding promise to the American people.”

    But Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) doesn’t see the SAFE Act that way. She described the enforcement-only bill as “a bump in the road” that could disrupt progress on immigration reform.

    “I believe that we’ve been making solid progress up to this point, and this bill puts in doubt that shared belief that we can come together and solve the problem of our broken immigration system together on a bipartisan basis,” she said.

    The California congresswoman also said she understood why demonstrators were there to protest the House Judiciary Committee’s markup of the SAFE Act.

    “This is very personal to families whose family members are threatened, to people who live in fear who want to become Americans,” she said. “I think if this bill were to become law, we would expect, as we saw eight years ago, millions of American citizens taking to the streets to demonstrate and to protect members of their family and members of their community from the wrong thing that this bill would incur.”

    House Democrats concerned with the SAFE Act

    Lofgren was among the Democrats in the House Judiciary Committee who condemned the SAFE Act and expressed concerns about the bill.

    For Conyers, the enforcement-only bill “moves our conversation in the wrong direction.”

    “It turns the immigration debate to partisan solutions that have failed in the past,” he said. “It makes a dangerous approach to a complicated problem that will harm communities all across the United States.”

    He and other House Democrats expressed concerns about how the bill would give state and local governments the authority to hold a person for days based on nothing more than the belief that the person has violated immigration laws. They also worried that by allowing local and law enforcement officers to act as immigration agents, undocumented immigrants who are victims of crime will be afraid to come forward.

    “The SAFE Act would make our communities less safe,” Conyers said. “By immediately converting all police officers into immigration agents, this bill will effectively force them to make public safety a distant second priority.”

    One of the biggest concerns for House Democrats is how the bill would further criminalize those with unlawful presence in the U.S., just as the Sensenbrenner bill of 2006 attempted to do. That bill failed to pass.

    “We have seen this before,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez said during the House Judiciary Committee hearing, as he tried to encourage committee members to instead seek a bipartisan, comprehensive approach to immigration reform.

    “When you have enforcement-only as your solution, you do not reach the kind of reasonable and comprehensive immigration reform bill that is necessary to repeal our broken immigration system,” Gutierrez said.

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