Capitol US rotunda 2
U.S. Capitol rotunda. Reuters

An enforcement-centered U.S. immigration reform bill undergoing markup in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday is under attack from Democrats concerned the measure will criminalize millions of undocumented people overnight, result in increased racial profiling and cause public safety to take a back seat to enforcement actions.

If the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act (SAFE), or H.R.2278 becomes law, it would give state and local law enforcement officials the authority to act as immigration agents and enforce federal immigration laws. The measure, introduced last week by co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee, would aim to toughen security by making visa and passport fraud an aggravated felony.

The measure is the House’s first move toward immigration reform. However, as soon as the session opened, protesters loudly cried shame on the measure, forcing the meeting into an early recess.

A bipartisan group has been working together for months on a bill, but it has not yet produced it. Gowdy’s legislation is a get-tough response to a 2013 immigration reform bill currently being debated in the Senate, where Republicans are pushing for heightened border security. It is also a major sign of how difficult it will be to get an immigration reform bill through the House, and perhaps Congress, before 2013 ends. Republicans and Democrats have very different priorities. Republicans want a boost in border security, which they see as their due from an exchange made more than 20 years ago, when three million immigrants were granted “amnesty.” Democrats want to see a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal aliens presently in the country.

“There has to be a first step, and enforcing the law strikes me as a reasonable place to begin,” Gowdy said, after noting that real, sustainable immigration reform has been elusive to prior Congressional sessions.

Democrats are criticizing the bill as bad policy that will make the country less safe. Ranking committee member U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said Gowdy’s immigration bill is making the debate too partisan. Conyers said one of the greatest shortcomings of the bill is that it makes it a felony to be undocumented in America.

“The premise of the SAFE Act is that we can enforce our way out of the problem that has been created by an immigration system that has been broken for decades,” Conyers said. “We’ve tried this before and we’ve failed before.”

Gowdy’s measure is also opposed by other members of the House immigration bipartisan group.

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the SAFE Act casts doubt on “our shared belief that we can come together and fix our broken immigration system on a bipartisan basis.”

Her colleague U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., encouraged members to oppose the “deeply flawed” bill. Gutierrez said flaws stem from how the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country are being viewed as criminals.

“That is fundamentally wrong,” he said. “Those that you would criminalize today share a church pew with me on Sunday.”

Gowdy said that whoever doesn’t like the bill shouldn’t vote for it.