The Congressional Hispanic Caucus denounced House Democratic leaders Wednesday as "spineless" and little better than Republicans for failing to take on comprehensive immigration reform.
Leaders of the all-Democratic caucus, which numbers two dozen, criticized their party leadership at a news conference for instead scheduling hearings on enforcement legislation and specific visa issues.
They also complained that they are being blamed for opposing bills strongly supported by other Democrats that would add more visas for certain classes of immigrants, such as high-tech or seasonal workers. Instead, the Hispanic Caucus insists on a comprehensive approach that would provide a path for citizenship for some 12 million illegal immigrants now living in the U.S.
Such legislation collapsed in the Senate last year and Democratic House leaders have shown little appetite for trying to revive the highly contentious issue in an election year.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona called the Democratic caucus "spineless."
"Today my party wants to do what is easy, not exactly what is right," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. "The leaders in our party who are arguing for consideration of helping just a few immigrants are risking the future of all immigrants."
Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., who chairs the Hispanic Caucus, said the visa and other bills under consideration were "nothing more than a Band-Aid being used to cover up a gaping wound."
The lawmakers were particularly incensed because hearings have been scheduled on a bill by moderate first-term Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., that focuses on enforcement and would add border patrol agents.
If a Democratic majority can allow such a hearing, "then we are no better than the Republican majority we replaced," Gutierrez said.
The lawmakers refused to identify names but said the piecemeal approach wouldn't be happening without the consent of top House Democratic leaders.
Asked to respond, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a statement blaming President Bush and Republicans.
"Speaker Pelosi is committed to balanced, fair and bipartisan immigration reform legislation," said the statement from spokesman Nadeam Elshami, "but unless the president and the Republican leadership engage Democrats in a positive way instead of using this issue to score partisan political points, members will only grow more frustrated with the process."
Elshami also said that the speaker's office anticipated a series of hearings to address immigration issues "and respond to the concerns expressed by House members of both parties."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who chairs the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said in an interview that it would be difficult to pass a comprehensive bill this year given the Senate's failure.
"I guess the real question is if you can't do everything you want is that an excuse for doing nothing," said Lofgren, who's held a hearing on seasonal workers but also on the comprehensive reform bill supported by the Hispanic Caucus. Lofgren also sponsored a bill extending visa eligibility for religious workers that the House passed last week by voice vote.