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The House Judiciary Committee kicked-off its series of discussions on illegal immigration today at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, with Congressional Republicans making that case that illegal immigration heavily burdens the national economy.

Critics have panned the meetings as a one-sided attack by congressional Republicans on the Kennedy-McCain immigration legislation passed by the Senate earlier this year and an attempt to stoke immigration controversy in advance of the November election.

Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, did little to dispel that perception.

“Each hearing will examine a different aspect of our nation’s illegal immigration dilemma, and also examine whether the Reid-Kennedy bill passed by the United States Senate offers a solution, or merely exacerbates the problem,” Sensenbrenner said during his opening remarks.

(Congressional Republicans who oppose the Senate legislation have taken to substituting Republican Sen. John McCain’s name with that of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada when referencing the bill.)

The Senate version advocates a guest worker program while the House bill focuses on adding resources to the border.

Rep. Howard Berman, D-Van Nuys, called the hearing “a con job on the American people,” and accused Republicans of avoiding meaningful discussion of an issue that has divided their party in an election year.

Others focused on the financial burdens of illegal immigration. “Illegal immigrants represent a net loss to the U.S. economy because they generally consume more in government than they pay in taxes,” Sensenbrenner said.

The committee heard from Michael D. Antonovich, a Los Angeles County supervisor, and Leroy Baca, the sheriff of Los Angeles County, who testified about the annual cost of providing undocumented immigrants with public safety, healthcare and social services, which Antonovich said costs the county more nearly $1 billion each year.

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, told the panel that, over their lifetimes, current undocumented immigrants who are high school dropouts will cost taxpayers half a trillion dollars.

“The continual influx of this very low skilled, poorly educated population is having the dramatic effect of driving up poverty rates it the United States,” he said.

Professor Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at University of California, San Diego, said his research shows that increased spending on border enforcement in recent years has outpaced the number of apprehensions. Moreover, although apprehensions have increased, 92 percent-to-97 percent of undocumented immigrants are able to successfully enter the United States after only two attempts, he said.

Cornelius recommended increasing the number of guest worker visas available, creating incentives for undocumented immigrants to remain in Mexico and legalizing as many undocumented immigrants as possible to reduce their vulnerability to exploitation and increase their contribution to tax revenues.

At times many of the committee member’s seats were empty as Bilbray, who’s not a committee member but attended as a special guest, and others left the proceedings to talk with the media.

The crowd turned nasty during the question and answer portion of the event when Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, held up a rack of ribbons she said was given to her by a soldier, who is an immigrant, during a recent tour of Iraq.

“This is the person we are maligning here today. This is the symbol of an undocumented immigrant,” she said, before the audience’s jeers interrupted the hearing.

Invoking his status as the grandchild of legal immigrants, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, received cheers from spectators when he asked rhetorically why a disproportionate number of undocumented immigrants come from Mexico.

After the hearing, Issa said that he didn’t think the House and Senate could reach an agreement on immigration legislation until after the November election.

Asked whether he thought the meeting advanced the immigration debate, Cornelius said “No, absolutely not.”

The next committee meeting is scheduled for Saturday in Santee.

DANIEL STRUMPF

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