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Commentary: Immigration hearings 'cynical and cowardly'

By Ruben Navarrette
Special to CNN

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego-Union Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. This is the first in a series of columns he is writing for CNN.com.

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Ruben Navarrette says House immigration hearings offer the public lip service, not much else.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- I knew that holding congressional field hearings on immigration was a bad idea. But I had to see one up close before I could know just how bad.

When House Republicans said they couldn't work out differences between their immigration reform bill and the bill approved by their GOP colleagues in the Senate, and that they would spend the summer holding public hearings, I knocked them for ducking their responsibility.

Why hold public hearings on bills that have already passed? Unless the goal is to rile the GOP base before the November election and create political cover to allow House Republicans to do what they want to do anyway: oppose President Bush and Senate Republicans in their bid for comprehensive reform, which includes guest workers and legalization for some of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Far from being an example of leadership, I thought what they were up to was cynical and cowardly. And that was before the gavel fell.

The first House hearing took place Wednesday here in San Diego. I was there. And now that I see what House Republicans had in mind, I think I may have been too easy on them.

The hearing was led by Rep. Ed Royce, R-California, who chairs the House International Relations subcommittee on international terrorism and nonproliferation. Royce told me before the hearings that he intended to focus on border security and whether the United States is at greater risk to another terrorist attack because the U.S.-Mexico border is so incredibly porous.

That was the first mistake. When most people think about border security, and their blood boils, it's not because they think al Qaeda may sneak in through the southern border. It's because they think the country is being invaded, and that the invaders are changing the language and the culture, and that we shouldn't give amnesty to lawbreakers. That's what people expected this committee to talk about. Not terrorism.

Besides, these aren't really public hearings per se; committee members don't hear from the public, as much as from invited guests -- many of whom simply tell committee members what they want to hear.

Naturally, the members spend more time talking than listening. And even when they did talk, they touched on a dozen different aspects of the issue -- from border violence and street gangs to changing neighborhoods and drug cartels, from penalizing employers and prosecuting smugglers to enlisting local law enforcement agencies and the federal government reimbursing those officials for the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants.

The challenge was packaging it all in such a way that it could be tucked neatly under the jurisdiction of Royce's committee on international terrorism. Guess what? It didn't fit. And watching committee members try to make it fit was awkward and unsatisfying for those on all sides of the issue.

It was a mess. And it was just the beginning. The hearings are supposed to last all summer. So brace yourself, this circus could be headed to a city near you.

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