The bill, called the SAFE Act (Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act), also gives state and local law enforcement authorities more power to arrest and charge immigrants for overstaying visas or entering the U.S. illegally -- and makes such agencies eligible for new federal grants to enforce the immigration laws.
The committee approved the bill late Tuesday night on a party-line vote of 20 to 15.
Democrats had objected to the legislation calling it potentially dangerous to public safety as it would divert at least some police officers in order to enforcement immigration laws and might deter crime victims and eyewitnesses from cooperating with police if they fear potential deportation.
But Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the bill’s chief sponsor, said his proposal is just one of several that will be considered by the committee as it pursues “a remedy” to the nation’s broken immigration system “step-by-step and increment-by-increment.”
On Wednesday the committee plans to debate and approve a GOP-backed proposal on agricultural workers. The Ag Act would establish a temporary visa program for agricultural workers that would permit eligible workers to stay and work in the United States for 36 months followed by three months of leave. Farm workers would be required to leave the country once every 18 months after their initial stay.
But congressional Democrats, farm workers unions and immigrant advocates oppose the bill because they say it would create a class of low-paid temporary workers and limit their ability earn tax credits or welfare benefits.