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A rising Hispanic-American political star joined experts Tuesday in urging US lawmakers to implement immigration reform, but a top Republican warned against rushing legislation through Congress.
In the first hearing on immigration this year, House members debated the potential way forward after President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators unveiled plans for comprehensive immigration reform late last month.
But Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, warned against a "rush to judgment" after Obama's call for swift action to fix a broken system amid an atmosphere of Republican-Democrat cooperation on the issue.
"I think we can all agree that our nation's immigration system is in desperate need of repair and it is not working as efficiently and fairly as it should be," Goodlatte told a packed hearing, the first of several to be held by the Judiciary Committee.
The panel "needs to take the time to learn from the past so that our efforts to reform our immigration laws do not repeat the same mistakes."
The burst of Capitol Hill activity marks the brightest opportunity in years to craft legislation aimed at tightening border security, improving an employment verification system, and helping bring some 11 million illegal immigrants out of limbo and into legalized status.
A 2007 effort spearheaded by president George W. Bush failed to get through Congress.
"Immigration is more than a political issue. It's who we are," said Julian Castro, the charismatic young mayor of San Antonio, Texas who had a star turn last year on the stage of the Democratic National Convention.
"Immigrants have made ours the greatest country in the world," he told a packed House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Immigration rights groups have pushed for broad reform for years, with little success. But November's election saw Obama handily re-elected, with huge backing from Hispanic Americans, about 70 percent of which pulled the lever for the Democratic incumbent, giving fresh impetus for reform.
It also shook Republicans into realizing that their 2012 candidate's tough stance on immigration may have driven Hispanics away from the party, and Republican luminaries like Senator Marco Rubio have come out strongly in favor of moving forward on comprehensive immigration reform.
But differences remain, particularly in the contentious issue of how to accommodate the millions who entered the country without permission.
Castro, however, insisted that one of the top priorities was the need to "create a path to citizenship to bring the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country out of the shadows and into the full light of the American dream."