San Antonio,, Texas Mayor Julian Castro, right, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on America’s Immigration System: Opportunities for Legal Immigration and Enforcement of Laws against Illegal Immigration. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

House judiciary committee hearing shines spotlight on highly skilled STEM workers, path to citizenship

With a bipartisan group of Senators unveiling their framework for immigration reform and President Obama echoing his call for reform, the House Judiciary Committee got in on the act, with the first in a series of hearings chaired by Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia.

Saying that this was the beginning of a “momentous debate on immigration,” Goodlatte invited Vivek Wadhwa, author of ”The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent,” Michael Teitelbaum of Duke University, Dr. Puneet S. Arora of Immigration Voice and San Antonio Mayor, Julian Castro to speak.

Wadhwa and Dr. Arora represented the interests of highly skilled STEM immigrants. Wadhwa stated that the U.S. is in the middle of another reinvention with technology changing the landscape. “Fifty percent of startups are founded by immigrants and they’re driving the boom and reinventing America,” he said.

But he added that the broken immigration system isn’t allowing Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to help save the country.

Calling himself an American, an optimist, the grandson of an immigrant orphan from Mexico and the Mayor of the nation’s seventh largest city, Castro said bipartisan legislation can be enacted and that the nation is on the cusp of real progress. He added that the pillars of reform he believes in are further strengthening border security, streamlining the process so employers can get the workers they need and a path to citizenship for 11 million people so they can “come out of the shadows and into the full light of the American Dream.”

While Castro agreed that employers seeking highly skilled workers are handcuffed, he sought to make clear that skilled workers come in different forms. He brought up the case of Benita Veliz, a DREAMer out of San Antonio, who was valedictorian of his alma mater. “By any measure she’s an American success story,” he said. “America is her home in every sense of the word — but she’s in limbo.”

Republicans on the House judiciary committee repeatedly brought up the issue of enforcement, asking what would be different now than in 1986, when undocumented immigrants received legal status. Newly elected Rep. Raul Labrador of Iowa, took on Castro for saying that he only supported a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants.

“I liked your words, ‘We progress by being pragmatic,'” Labrador said to Castro, adding that he was an immigration lawyer for many years. “But your words are not pragmatic. I worked with many people who wanted to be legal residents, to be able to work and be able to travel. To feel like a dignified human. If we can find a compromise short of a pathway to citizenship but it’s not kicking out 12 million people, why can’t we do that?”

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While Castro was unable to answer Labrador because of the time restrictions, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) took the chance to make the case for undocumented immigrants.

“While we’ve been talking people have been deported,” he said. “For the crime of working.” Gutierrez added that there was an increase in earning power for the formerly undocumented after the new law passed in 1986, which would happen again. “People waiting are going to buy that house, going to buy that car.”

House Speaker John Boehner applauded members on both sides of the isle for their work on immigration. “This is not about being in a hurry, this is about trying to get it right on behalf of the American people and those who are suffering under an immigration system that doesn’t work very well for anybody,” he said. But Boehner was short on specifics, and when pressed on whether he would support a pathway to citizenship, he deflected the question, saying only it’s “a very difficult part of any of these bills.”

The organization, Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice for the Center for Community Change, said that the witnesses called for the immigration hearing lacked key voices central to immigration reform.

“The House Judiciary Committee’s witness list for its hearing on immigration reform today is sorely lacking the voices of immigrant families who have suffered greatly under our broken immigration system,” director Kica Matos said. “It is the plight of their families that have moved Latinos and immigrants to come together politically as an extremely powerful voice at the ballot box in the past two election cycles. Lawmakers must remember that the most important factor in immigration reform is people, not politics.”

A group of DREAMers made their presence felt during the hearing, interrupting and shouting “Undocumented and unafraid!”

Mayor Castro echoed the president’s call last week to engage in thoughtful debate — but to move quickly and coalesce around bipartisan consensus.

“A hearing is a great start but a hearing is not enough,” he said.

“Lets rise above the political fray. Ladies and gentlemen America is watching – let’s get this done.”

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