WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate opened its first hearing on a comprehensive immigration overhaul Wednesday with a call from a committee chairman for swift action on a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants. Tensions quickly emerged as shouting protesters interrupted the hearing and Republicans called for border security first.
"The president is right: Now is the time," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told a packed hearing room a day after President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to renew his call for immigration reform and eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The emotions surrounding the issue were on display as protesters shouted down the first witness, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, calling for an end to deportations.
The protesters were ushered out. Napolitano declared the border more secure than ever and rejected the argument that border security must be the focus before comprehensive immigration reform or any pathway to legalization can be done.
"Too often the border security refrain simply serves as an excuse," Napolitano said. "Our borders have in fact never been stronger."
A top committee Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., quickly contradicted her and Leahy, saying the administration has not focused sufficiently on enforcement, and contending that "you mean amnesty only, you really mean we're not going to have enforcement, we've got to have amnesty first."
The hearing came amid a concerted focus on immigration reform from the White House to Capitol Hill. Obama says he is determined to finally make good on his promise to the Latino community to sign into law a comprehensive immigration bill with border security, employer enforcement, improvements to legal immigration and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of eight senators has been meeting to develop a bill by next month that accomplishes eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants while also containing enough border security and enforcement measures to gain conservative support.
It comes amid a rapidly shifting political environment with polls showing more Americans support eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants, and many Republican leaders increasingly supportive of action on immigration reform in the wake of a dismal showing among Latino voters in the November elections.
Yet, as Wednesday's hearing made starkly clear, the success of any legislation is no sure thing with many Republicans still deeply skeptical.
Several Republicans on the panel rejected Napolitano's contention that the border is secure, questioned why earlier immigration laws never yielded the promised enforcement mechanisms, and branded as "amnesty" attempts to legalize illegal immigrants.
"I do not believe the border is secure and I still believe we have a long, long way to go," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Protesters interrupted the hearing several times, with some shouting and waving banners against deportations, which have increased markedly under the Obama administration. Later another group stood and turned their backs to the dais where the senators sat, with signs on their backs reading "human rights" and "immigrant rights." Leahy repeatedly chided the protesters for interrupting proceedings.
In an unusual move for Congress the hearing was also to feature testimony from an illegal immigrant, Jose Antonio Vargas, a former journalist who founded the group Define American, which campaigns for immigration reform.
The former head of America Online, Steve Case, also was on the witness list, along with Chris Crane, president of the immigration and customs' workers union, which has opposed Obama's immigration policies.
The bipartisan Senate negotiators, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and John McCain, R-Ariz., are operating separately from the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the committee is expected to vote on any legislation they produce.
A major difference between Obama's proposals and the blueprint embraced by the bipartisan Senate negotiators is that the senators are making a pathway to citizenship conditional on border security being accomplished first - something Republicans demand - while Obama's plan contains no such linkage.
Vargas acknowledged his illegal status in a high-profile piece in The New York Times Magazine in June 2011 but thus far has avoided deportation. He was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. He wrote in his Times essay that his mother sent him from the Philippines to live with grandparents in California in 1993 when he was 12. He wrote that he didn't find out he was in the country illegally until he applied for a driver's permit with forged documents.