Partisan Bickering Hangs Over Immigration Hearing

A Congressional hearing over new illegal detainee standards revealed partisanship Wednesday..

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A Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday on Immigration and Customs Enforcement's newly adopted detention standards revealed an increasingly bitter Congressional divide on immigration. [See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

The hearing in front of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Policy and Enforcement was held to review ICE's standards, which grant health care services to detainees, expand protections against sexual assault, provide more hospitable living conditions and expand access to legal services.

The development of the new standards came after a series of investigations, complaints and reports that revealed abuses in the system ranging from rapes to preventable deaths.

From the beginning, the hearing was a political firestorm. Even the name of the hearing was a point of controversy. [Read: Mitt Romney, GOP Reach Out to Hispanics]

California Rep. Zoe Lofgren said she was "disappointed" to learn the hearing was titled "Holidays on ICE," a title Texas Rep. Lamar Smith defended in his statement.

"This hearing is entitled 'Holidays on ICE' because ICE has decided to upgrade accommodations for detained illegal and criminal immigrants," Smith said. "While we would all like to be upgraded, we don't have the luxury of billing American taxpayers or making federal law enforcement agents our concierge."

Smith said facilities designed to comply with new standards were too expensive and opulent, citing a new $30 million detention facility in Karnes City, Texas that is equipped with cable TV, basketball courts, a library and Internet access.

ICE defends that detention programs like the one in Karnes City are part of a wider effort to decrease costs to taxpayers in the long run by providing safe environments for detained immigrants.

But Smith also voiced concerns over a new complaint system that allows detained immigrants to report mistreatment to various agencies, which Smith said makes ICE agents vulnerable to false accusations.

Lofgren told U.S. News and World Report that while Smith has always been anti-immigrant,  His  comments were some of the most divisive she's seen in the 17 years she has worked with him.

"He's been anti-immigrant from the first and he stays that way, but I think that this title might have been a new high on disgusting behavior," Lofgren says.

While Republicans and Democrats have long disagreed about immigration, experts say increasing partisanship in Congress elsewhere has divided them even further on the issue.

"Immigration politics have gotten more polarized over time," says Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who follows immigration trends. "Immigration is often used as a wedge issue, even though the public generally in not interested."

Immigration rights activists says the hearing is an unsettling sign for the future of  immigration legislation.

"I think it sort of speaks to the nature of our country and the nature of our Congress that we can't speak about immigration in a common sense, bipartisan way," says Claudia Valenzuela, an associate director of litigation at the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center.