If you like standing in long lines to get into things, you would have loved the Hart Senate Office Building at 9:45 yesterday morning. According to a press release blasted a few hours later, more than 500 pro-immigration-reform activists had gathered to support the Gang of Eight’s proposed legislation. They sported white T-shirts with slogans such as “Keep Families Together” and “La Gente Primero” and “Protect the Path,” sang “America the Beautiful,” prayed (as was emphasized in the press release) and, inevitably, slowed the line a bit. The activists present were members of National People’s Action, a group that, in their own words, “work[s] to advance a national economic and racial justice agenda.”
Inside, the mood was similarly boisterous. When the hearing kicked off — it would run for more than five hours — the room was standing-room-only, with a crowd of National People’s Action protesters outside and others waiting to get in. Senator Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), the chair of the judiciary committee, acknowledged the protesters and made a hesitant request.
“There are many people here with some very strong feelings, and I appreciate that,” he said, and then asked that the attendees not block the doors.
An hour into the hearing, Senators Schumer and Grassley had a now-widely-reported tiff over whether the Boston Marathon bombing should inform the immigration-reform process. The New York senator obliquely charged that some had used the marathon attacks as an “excuse for not doing a bill or delaying it many months or years,” and Grassley took the jab personally.
“I never said that!” he interjected. “I never said that!”
As Leahy hammered away with his gavel, Schumer retorted, “I never said you did,” adding that the comment was aimed at “people out there — you’ve read it in the newspapers — who have said it.”
It wasn’t the only flare of emotion over the course of the hearing. Gaby Pacheco, an undocumented immigrant, choked up at the end of her testimony on the problems with the current immigration system.
Leahy asked Pacheco one question that seemed less than substantive: After comparing her march with a group of undocumented immigrants from Miami to D.C. to the civil-rights movement, he asked, “What inspires you to do that? What inspires you to step forward that way?”
“Thank you, Senator Leahy, for your question. And it’s simply put in one word: love. The love that I have for this country, the love that I have for my family, for the community that I grew up in, and the love that I have for myself, because I do have a dream.” She added that she hopes to open a music therapy center if she gets legal status.
A bit of a theological debate also ensued. David Fleming, the senior pastor of Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston, argued that Christian scripture wasn’t a basis for opposing comprehensive immigration reform, while Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, perhaps the most vocal of the reform skeptics, shot back with a reference to the Book of Nehemiah in which the Old Testament prophet asked the king to give him a letter approving his passage through other lands. He also cited the Book of Leviticus, and a passage in Genesis when Moses and Isaac negotiated treaties for water rights.
“Thank you, Senator Sessions, and I so appreciate you doing my job for me today,” responded the pastor with a laugh.
“I couldn’t disagree at all with what you said,” he added. “I completely agree,” he said, before going on to argue that the immigration system should be reformed to reduce the current glut of undocumented residents.