General Speaks of Immigrant Father

Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, chokes up at the hearing.
Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, chokes up at the hearing. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
By Glenn Frankel and Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 11, 2006

MIAMI, July 10 -- A congressional hearing on immigration came to a dramatic pause Monday when Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, choked up as he talked about his Italian immigrant father and the opportunities that America had given to his family.

A hush fell over the auditorium at Miami Dade College as Pace, a Marine who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in Teaneck, N.J., was overcome with emotion and struggled to continue reading from his statement as the opening witness at the field hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Pace was explaining his family's origins to the committee and the opportunities he and his three siblings enjoyed in America when he lost his composure, much to the surprise of the 150 people gathered in the hearing room and to the five senators, who sat riveted as the general paused.

After he composed himself, Pace described his older sister, who went to law school, and his older brother, who, like himself, attended the Naval Academy and was a Marine.

"There is no other country on the planet that affords that kind of opportunity to those who come here," Pace concluded. The audience burst into applause.

Pace's father was born in Italy in 1914, immigrated to the United States and became an electrician in New York City, raising four children there. The first Marine to be named chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Pace has been chairman since September 2005 after serving as vice chairman for four years.

Pace, whose last name means "peace" in Italian, is a 1967 graduate of the Naval Academy and has served in Thailand, Korea and Japan.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was at the hearing, said Pace made an "enormously moving comment and statement" and added: "We just hope our colleagues in the Congress can hear it."

Field hearings are being held around the country on the separate House and Senate immigration bills currently before Congress. The subject of the Miami hearing, chaired by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), was the contributions immigrants have made to the armed forces.

The House bill calls for tighter border controls, 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and funding for local law enforcement agencies along the border. It also calls for tougher deportation standards and stringent enforcement of rules governing employers who hire undocumented workers.

The Senate's immigration bill, co-sponsored by Kennedy and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), includes similar provisions. But it also outlines a method for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens and calls for a guest-worker program that would provide legal residency status for as long as six years.

In recent weeks, the White House and Senate Republicans have indicated a willingness to tackle border security first, but only if the action later triggers some or all of the Senate bill's residency-related provisions.

House GOP leaders have dismissed such features as the guest-worker program as an unacceptable "amnesty" for lawbreakers. They were the first to call for field hearings as a means of showcasing popular support for their approach while also delaying negotiations with senators on a final bill.

After Pace's emotional testimony, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked the general whether his parents were still living. Pace replied that his mother was still alive.

"When you have Italian blood in you, sometimes it wells up and grabs your heart," he told Graham.

Graham said, "It takes a strong Marine to cry."

Deane reported from Washington.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company