BY MARY ORNDORFF TROYAN
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The conservative South Carolina Republican who just took over a key immigration panel has been labeled an anti-immigration hardliner but said he empathizes with people who come to the U.S. seeking a better life.
"I think you have to find a synthesis between the humanity that I think defines us as a people, and the respect for the rule of law that defines us as a republic," Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg said in an interview hours after being sworn in for a second term.
Gowdy is the new chairman the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. He was appointed last month by the Republican chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.
Gowdy, a former prosecutor, says three images come to his mind when he considers immigration: Vietnamese fleeing Communism in the wheel wells of airplanes, Cubans dying on makeshift rafts off the Florida coast, and a woman from Sierra Leone whose hands were cut off because she tried to vote.
"Peoples' desire to improve their lives resonates with me, no matter where they're from," Gowdy said.
Immigration reform - and what to do about the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country now - will be a top priority for President Barack Obama during his second term, and Gowdy's committee will be central to the debate.
Gowdy said he expects to conduct his first few hearings as fact-finding missions to inform what he hopes will be a Republican-backed immigration reform bill.
Republicans fared poorly among Hispanic voters in the 2012 presidential election and are eager to improve their image with those voters.
Gowdy did not endorse any one idea, but instead wants to use the hearings to dispel myths and give lawmakers a chance to voice their positions.
He disputes allegations that illegal immigrants are draining certain government services reserved for citizens, such as unemployment benefits and Social Security. Illegal immigrants do not qualify for such benefits.
And the farmers and growers in his Upstate South Carolina district can't find and keep American employees, so allowing immigrants to work here legally is essential, Gowdy said.
He said deporting all 11 million illegal immigrants would require government action that would "shock the conscience of some of the folks who are most forceful in arguing for it."
"You want them knocking on your front door?" he said. "You want them going to elementary schools and rounding up the kids?"
During his two years in the House, Gowdy has earned an A- rating from NumbersUSA, an organization that wants to lower the number of immigrants.
He has opposed the Justice Department's challenges to tougher immigration laws adopted in Arizona and Alabama, Obama's executive order allowing some young illegal immigrants to stay, and a Department of Homeland Security policy to use prosecutorial discretion in deciding which illegal immigrants to prioritize for deportation.
Current proposals for whittling down the number of people in the country illegally include deporting those with criminal records, and granting legal status to those who immigrated as children and are in school or the military.
Gowdy did not stake out a position on what a new GOP immigration bill should or should not include regarding paths to citizenship, or amnesty.
"It would depend on what that path involved and depends on the factors you would immediately want to look at," he said. "Law-abidingness, for one. And connection to the community. I'd also be curious as to how many of them desire citizenship."
Gowdy, who attends a Southern Baptist church, frequently mentions the moral dilemmas posed by the illegal immigration issue. He said he's grateful Egypt allowed Jesus to immigrate from Israel, for example.
And the Southern Baptist Convention endorsed the DREAM Act, which allows certain young illegal immigrants with clean records who are in school or the military to eventually gain citizenship. Gowdy made that point during an immigration reform meeting that included Bono, the activist and singer with the Irish band U2.
"In my district, what's said from the pulpit carries a lot of weight in terms of how we define morality," Gowdy said.
But he also said breaking the law should have consequences. Conservatives would be reluctant to support any proposal that offered some form of amnesty to people in the country illegally unless it also made the borders more secure and promised to prevent another build-up in the population of illegal immigrants, he said.
"If you're trying to convince people who are skeptical of yet another comprehensive bill that's going to fix this once and for all, then you have to be able to convince them that folks that are not here lawfully and violate another law in our country are not going to be kept," Gowdy said.
This year, about 410,000 people were deported, a record high.
One of Capitol Hill's most ardent advocates of immigration reform, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, welcomed Gowdy's comments and predicted House lawmakers will deal with immigration in a more collegial way this year than they have in the past. He said he's had several productive conversations with House Republicans in recent days about finding common ground on the issue.
"We've haven't all signed on to a new Magna Carta for immigrants, but I certainly see us working with a kinder, more generous, humanistic approach," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez, who was appointed to the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, may be an unexpected ally for Gowdy in one respect.
Gowdy said he's concerned Democrats may not want to solve the immigration problem because the battle benefits them politically. Seventy percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama in November. Gutierrez, who has complained about both parties' inaction, said he understands that concern.
"If Republicans gain votes and gain new avenues of acceptance in the electorate because they've helped fix a broken immigration system, it will only be because the public feels they deserve it," Gutierrez said. "Congressman Gowdy should understand he's going to a have a friend and ally in overcoming any political opportunism. I won't tolerate it. I haven't spent the last 20 years of my life to make this something that someone can exploit politically. I want to settle it."