The session came as President Barack Obama pushes for swift action to pass immigration legislation and as bipartisan Senate negotiators work to craft a bill. But in a sign of the difficulties to come, the Judiciary chairman, Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, cautioned against a "rush to judgment" and said each piece of the issue must be examined in detail.
Goodlatte said there are lots of questions about how any large-scale legalization program would work, how much it would cost and how it would prevent illegal immigration in future.
Obama supports a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, something many Republicans oppose.
Goodlatte questioned whether another approach might be possible: "Are there options we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?" he asked.
His question underscored the discomfort of many majority House Republicans with granting eventual citizenship to illegal immigrants, something conservatives often decry as amnesty.
At one point the hearing was interrupted by protesters, apparently young illegal immigrants known as "DREAMers" brought to the country as children, who shouted "undocumented and unafraid!" before being led out.
Yet Tuesday's hearing, which focused on fixing the legal immigration system and on enforcement, was notable for the generally measured tone from some Republicans known for strong anti-immigration positions.
Several questioned whether there's a way short of citizenship to deal with illegal immigrants, and others on the panel agreed on the need to allow more high-skilled workers to enter the country, a priority for technology companies.
"Let's not let the more contentious issues and the idea of comprehensive reform prevent us from passing something," said Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.
It was part of a larger shift by Republicans who have begun to embrace action on immigration reform in the wake of the November elections in which large proportions of Hispanic voters supported Obama, helping him win re-election. Some GOP leaders have concluded that softening their views on immigration is becoming a political necessity.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., delivered a speech Tuesday embracing "an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home." It appeared to be a change for Cantor, who voted against DREAM Act legislation to allow a path to citizenship for certain immigrants brought here as youths.
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