WASHINGTON — Lawmakers who are shaping the fate of the millions of people in the U.S. illegally were told by one Wednesday that it's time to rewrite immigration laws so that they, too, can live the American dream.
"What do you want to do with me?" an emotional Jose Antonio Vargas demanded of senators. "How do you define American?"
The first Senate hearing on immigration policy this year pointed toward an emerging bipartisan consensus that the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants should be offered a path to citizenship. But passionate divisions over the issue also surfaced as one Republican decried amnesty and shouting protesters interrupted the proceedings.
"You really mean that we're not going to have enforcement, but we've got to have amnesty first," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, a top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano rejected the argument that border security must be the focus before a comprehensive immigration package or any pathway to legalization can be done.
"Too often the border security refrain simply serves as an excuse," she said.
An immigration overhaul is a priority for President Barack Obama and lawmakers after a brutal election in which voters again elected a divided government. Democrats control the White House and the Senate, while Republicans hold the House majority.
But for all of the division and polarization in Washington, the hearing produced evidence of bipartisan agreement to fix what all agree is a broken system — and finally dispense with an wrenching issue that has bedeviled lawmakers for years.
Vargas' testimony produced a striking moment in which one of the 11 million illegal immigrants at the center of the debate confronted the elected officials reconsidering the law.
A former journalist who acknowledged his illegal status in a high-profile piece in The New York Times Magazine in June 2011, Vargas recalled his journey to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1993. He told lawmakers that he never knew he was here illegally until he applied for a drivers' permit, and that he lived for years in fear until he decided to go public and start an advocacy group. He has so far avoided deportation.
"Too often, we're treated as abstractions, faceless and nameless, mere subjects of debate rather than individuals with families, hopes, fears, and dreams," Vargas told committee members. "We dream of a path to citizenship so we can actively participate in our American democracy." Democrats on the panel offered praise and encouragement. Republicans had little response.
For Vargas and others in his position the deliberations offered some encouraging signs mixed with unmistakable notes of caution.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., declared in opening the hearing, "In my view it is time to pass a good bill, a fair bill, a comprehensive bill ... Too many have been waiting too long for fairness."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, disputed that. "I do not believe the border is secure and I still believe we have a long, long way to go," he said.
Protesters interrupted the hearing several times, with some shouting and waving banners against deportations, which have increased markedly under the Obama administration despite its push to find a political accommodation for many who have been living in the U.S. Later people in another group stood and silently turned their backs to the dais where the senators sat. They wore signs on their backs reading "human rights" and "immigrant rights." Leahy chided them for interrupting proceedings.
Obama says he is determined to finally make good on his promise to the Latino community to sign into law a comprehensive immigration bill with border security, employer enforcement, improvements to legal immigration and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of eight senators has been meeting to develop a bill by next month that accomplishes eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants while also containing enough border security and enforcement measures to gain conservative support.