Passion in US lower house immigration debate

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US lawmakers debated plans on Tuesday to build a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants who remade their lives in America but found themselves at the heart of a fierce debate.

President Barack Obama and a group of Republican and Democratic senators have submitted plans for reform, but as the House of Representatives took up the issue, there were signs the bipartisan facade is coming under strain.

While from the Democratic side of the aisle, a rising Hispanic-American political star made an impassioned plea for to fix a broken system, more senior Republicans warned against pushing too fast for change.

"Immigration is more than a political issue. It's who we are," said Mr Julian Castro, the charismatic young mayor of San Antonio, Texas who had a star turn last year on the stage of the Democratic National Convention. "Immigrants have made ours the greatest country in the world," he told a packed House Judiciary Committee hearing. "Doing nothing is not an option."

But Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the committee, warned against a "rush to judgment" - despite concerns among his Republican opponents that they have lost the support of a generation of Hispanic and Asian voters.

"I think we can all agree that our nation's immigration system is in desperate need of repair and it is not working as efficiently and fairly as it should be," he told the first of several hearings on the issue.

Mr Goodlatte warned his panel "needs to take the time to learn from the past so our efforts to reform our immigration laws do not repeat the same mistakes." The burst of activity on Capitol Hill marks the best chance in years to craft legislation to tighten border security, improve employment verification and bring some 11 million illegal immigrants out of limbo.

A 2007 effort spearheaded by then president George W. Bush failed.

Mr Obama and top Republicans are for once in agreement that political and demographic trends have suddenly shifted to offer the best chance for serious reform in a generation.

November's election saw Mr Obama re-elected with 70 per cent backing from Hispanic American voters - many of whom have friends or relatives seeking papers.

It shook Republicans into realising that their tough stance on immigration had driven Hispanics away from the party, and party luminaries like Senator Marco Rubio have come out strongly in favour of immigration reform.

But differences remain, particularly in the contentious issue of how to accommodate the millions who entered the country without permission, or who came in legally but overstayed their visas.

Mr Goodlatte said a pathway to citizenship for such residents was an "extreme" option, but Mr Castro insisted that this must be one of the top priorities.

Democratic congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a former immigration lawyer from California, conceded the system was dysfunctional, but that "partial legalisation, as some are suggesting, is a dangerous path."

She argued that merely providing undocumented workers with legal status but no way to work towards full citizenship could create a "permanent underclass," while kicking the undocumented out en masse would trigger economic chaos.

With up to 90 per cent of the estimated two million migrant farm workers in the country illegally, "you could do e-verify and find out they're not properly here and American agriculture would collapse."