US lawmakers debated plans on Tuesday to build a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants who remade their lives in America but found themselves at the heart of a fierce debate.
President Barack Obama and a group of Republican and Democratic senators have submitted plans for reform, but as the House of Representatives took up the issue, there were signs the bipartisan facade is coming under strain.
While from the Democratic side of the aisle, a rising Hispanic-American political star made an impassioned plea to fix a broken system, more senior Republicans warned against pushing too fast for change.
"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. "Doing nothing is not an option."
But Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the committee, warned against a "rush to judgment" -- despite concerns among his Republican colleagues that they have lost the support of a generation of Hispanic and Asian voters.
"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," he told the first of several hearings on the issue.
Goodlatte warned his panel "needs to take the time to learn from the past so our efforts to reform our immigration laws do not repeat the same mistakes."
The burst of activity on Capitol Hill marks the best chance in years to craft legislation to tighten border security, improve employment verification and bring some 11 million illegal immigrants out of limbo.
A 2007 effort spearheaded by then-president George W. Bush failed.
Obama and top Republicans are for once in agreement that political and demographic trends have suddenly shifted to offer the best chance for serious reform in a generation.
November's election saw Obama re-elected with 70 percent backing from Hispanic American voters -- many of whom have friends or relatives seeking papers.
It shook Republicans into realizing that their tough stance on immigration had driven Hispanics away from the party, and party luminaries like Senator Marco Rubio have come out strongly in favour of immigration reform.
But differences remain, particularly in the contentious issue of how to accommodate the millions who entered the country without permission, or who came in legally but overstayed their visas.
The issue bubbled over in the hearing room when about eight protesters stood up with fists raised, and chanted "undocumented and unafraid!" for about 30 seconds before walking out.
Castro said a pathway to citizenship, similar to the one proposed by the bipartisan group of senators last month, was crucial in order to bring 11 million undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows and into the full light of the American dream."
Republican Goodlatte pushed back, seeking to carve a possible compromise option short of full citizenship for those who entered illegally or stayed beyond their visa.
"Are there options that we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?" Goodlatte asked.
Democratic congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a former immigration lawyer from California, conceded the system was dysfunctional, but that "partial legalization, as some are suggesting, is a dangerous path."
She argued that merely providing undocumented workers with legal status but no way to work towards full citizenship could create a "permanent underclass," while kicking the undocumented out en masse would trigger economic chaos.
With up to 90 percent of the estimated two million migrant farm workers in the country illegally, "you could do e-verify and find out they're not properly here and American agriculture would collapse."
Obama addressed the immigration issue Tuesday as well, hosting meetings with more than two dozen progressive leaders and business executives.
Steve Case, co-founder of America Online, said he was encouraged by the discussion at the White House.
"The president and his team listened to numerous proposals, outlined many of their own and expressed a desire to build a bipartisan consensus regarding comprehensive immigration reform," Case said.