Friday, July 28, 2006

Politics as usual: House Republicans set 21 immigration hearings

House Republicans set 21 immigration hearings

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House Republican leaders said on Thursday they would hold 21 hearings across the country through August to build support for tough border security measures to curb illegal immigration.

House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said the hearings would take place in 13 states, including states along the U.S.-Canadian border.

"Almost everywhere that I travel around the country, illegal immigration's a top concern," said Hastert, who recently visited the U.S. border with Mexico. "It's a top concern among Americans because they want our southern and our northern borders to be secure."

As with earlier hearings sponsored by House Republicans, the latest round will highlight problems they see with Senate legislation that would give millions of illegal immigrants a chance to earn U.S. citizenship.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, called the hearings an election-year campaign gimmick that was standing in the way of completing legislation.

"These are campaign events driven by the right wing of the Republican Party, not true hearings," Kennedy said. "They think their 'enforcement only' plan will help them at the ballot box in November, but security experts agree that it can't fix our broken system."

The House passed a bill very different from the Senate's legislation. The House bill focuses exclusively on tough border security, punishes employers who give jobs to illegal immigrants and declares illegal immigration a felony. Earlier this year, it sparked mass demonstrations by Hispanic Americans and others across the country.

"We want a strong bill that secures our border, enforces our laws," Boehner said. "We believe that these hearings will help strengthen our hand as we negotiate with our counterparts in the Senate and hopefully get a bill to the president some time this year."

With the chambers so far apart, it is unclear whether lawmakers can bridge their differences and send a final bill to President George W. Bush before the November congressional elections. Bush wants a comprehensive bill that includes a guest-worker program.