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Senate immigration debate distracted by news stories

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Following this week's introduction of an immigration reform bill in the U.S. Senate, that body's Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on the matter Friday. But the meeting was shorter and more lightly attended than expected. Testimony by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was postponed because of the fast moving events in Boston, and committee member John Cornyn of Texas flew home after the fertilizer plant explosion near Waco.

The remaining Senators framed the debate over immigration reform.

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein touted the portion of the immigration bill she helped negotiate: a provision designed to prevent farming from migrating overseas by allowing 112,000 temporary work visas. She called it a "good, strong program" that will result in "a consistant supply of agricultural workers for our farmers."

But Peter Kirsanow of  the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights told Senators another provision of the bill that provides visas for lower-skilled workers is problematic. He said granting legal status to some will just attract new cheap laborers across the border. "It swells the ranks of black unemployed and drives down the wages of those blacks who do have jobs," he said.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina suggested these newly legal residents would strain Social Security and Medicare. His GOP colleague, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, accused the Obama administration of "utterly" ignoring current immigration laws, adding he has  "no confidence" the admistration would enforce any new ones.

Some senators complained there hasn’t been enough time to digest the nearly 900-page bill, and suggested the measure be considered in separate pieces.

The Boston Marathon bombing was on the mind of Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, who suggested the hearing was an opportunity to "refocus" on the "importance of remaining vigilant and securing the homeland."

But New York Democrat Charles Schumer asked colleagues not to jump to conclusions or conflate events in Boston with the immigration bill.  He suggested the bill would improve national security since law enforcement would know who is in the country because of fingerprints, photos, and background checks of the newly legal. Police would no longer need to "look at needles through haystacks."

Roberto Fierro was in the audience as part of his job as a lobbyist. But he also has a personal interest in immigration. Fierro is a U.S. citizen, but as a child he crossed the border daily from Tijuana to San Diego to attend elementary school. He said others weren't so lucky.

"I had friends that had to cross illegally for my wedding," said Fierro, "so this is definitely something that has personal implications.”

A second Senate Judiciary hearing on the bill is scheduled for Monday. 

Correction: a photograph caption said Fierro was now a U.S. citizen; the "now" has been deleted.

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