Clashing ideas, hearings


SAN DIEGO -- In two different hearing rooms on two distant coasts, the two chambers of Congress staged competing summer shows yesterday to promote their dueling visions of illegal immigration in the United States and the best way to overhaul immigration laws.

At a hearing organized by House Republicans who back tougher enforcement, witnesses in San Diego painted a grim picture of the U.S.-Mexico border as a war zone that fuels crime and is "ripe" for becoming a "terrorist pipeline."

"National security is synonymous with border security," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, who traded barbs with his Democratic counterparts at the often testy hearing.

About 2,700 miles away in Philadelphia, senators who back a wider approach to revising immigration policy heard from witnesses who emphasized the essential role illegal workers now play in the nation's economy.

"Our city's economy ... would collapse if they were deported," said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The two hearings marked the start of a summer-long contest between the House and the Senate to control the terms of the immigration debate. A House bill passed late last year concentrates on enforcement; Senate legislation approved in May combines intensified border security with a guest worker program and a path to legalization for most of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

As lawmakers held court on opposite coasts, President Bush held his own field hearing at a Dunkin' Donuts in Alexandria, Va.

Celebrating the entrepreneurial energy of the store's two Iranian-American owners and their Guatemalan-American district manager, Bush jokingly offered reporters coffee and reiterated his support for a Senate-style overhaul.

The atmosphere at the House hearing, at San Diego Border Patrol headquarters, was far less jovial. Within sight of the hills of Tijuana and the walls that separate the United States from Mexico, immigration restrictionists waved American flags, while immigrant advocates displayed hundreds of crosses representing those who perished while crossing the border.

A similar duel took place inside the hearing room.

Democrats blasted the administration's record on work-site enforcement and blamed it for inadequate law enforcement funding and an unwillingness to reimburse local counties for costs related to illegal immigration - a federal responsibility.

Republicans saw just as much to blame in the jobs and the widespread health and education benefits that attract illegal immigrants to the United States.

Although both sides lavished praise on the Border Patrol and sheriffs, they jousted over the reasons for crime at the border. Republicans noted that the 14-mile border wall near San Diego has all but eliminated the rape, robbery and murder - mostly of immigrants by Mexican criminal gangs - that existed when only a chain-link fence divided the two countries.

The House bill calls for more than 390 miles of walls to be built between Calexico, Calif., and Douglas, Ariz.

In Philadelphia, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, used his hearing to concentrate largely on immigration's economic importance, instead of its cost. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who was the hearing's other host, stressed the moral case for accepting immigrants.

Specter said the intent of his hearing was to make sure that the public understood the Senate bill and to counter House attempts to control the debate.

Nicole Gaouette and Sam Quinones write for the Los Angeles Times.

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