WASHINGTON - Lawmakers who are shaping the fate of the millions of people in the U.S. illegally were told by one Wednesday that it's time to rewrite immigration laws so that they, too, can live the American dream.
"What do you want to do with me?" an emotional Jose Antonio Vargas demanded of senators. "How do you define American?"
The first Senate hearing on immigration policy this year pointed toward an emerging bipartisan consensus that the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants should be offered a path to citizenship. But passionate divisions over the issue also surfaced as one Republican decried amnesty and shouting protesters interrupted the proceedings.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, talks with the committee's ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, during the committee's hearing on comprehensive immigration reform.
"You really mean that we're not going to have enforcement, but we've got to have amnesty first," Sen. Jeff Sessions, a top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, confronted the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Leahy and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano rejected the argument that border security must be the focus before a comprehensive immigration package or any pathway to legalization can be done.
"Too often the border security refrain simply serves as an excuse," Napolitano said. "Our borders have in fact never been stronger."
An immigration overhaul is a priority for President Barack Obama and lawmakers after a brutal election in which voters again elected a divided government. Democrats control the White House and the Senate, while Republicans hold the House majority.
But for all of the division and polarization in Washington, the hearing produced evidence of bipartisan agreement to fix what all agree is a broken system - and finally dispense with a wrenching issue that has bedeviled lawmakers for years.
Vargas' testimony produced a striking moment in which one of the 11 million illegal immigrants at the center of the debate confronted the elected officials reconsidering the law.
A former journalist who acknowledged his illegal status in a high-profile piece in The New York Times Magazine in June 2011, Vargas recalled his journey to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1993. He told lawmakers that he never knew he was here illegally until he applied for a drivers' permit, and that he lived for years in fear until he decided to go public and start an advocacy group. He has so far avoided deportation.
"Too often, we're treated as abstractions, faceless and nameless, mere subjects of debate rather than individuals with families, hopes, fears, and dreams," Vargas told committee members. "We dream of a path to citizenship so we can actively participate in our American democracy." Democrats on the panel offered praise and encouragement. Republicans had little response.
For Vargas and others in his position the deliberations offered some encouraging signs mixed with unmistakable notes of caution.
Leahy declared in opening the hearing, "In my view it is time to pass a good bill, a fair bill, a comprehensive bill ... Too many have been waiting too long for fairness."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the focus must be border security. "I do not believe the border is secure and I still believe we have a long, long way to go," he said.