A bipartisan group of senators last week unveiled a comprehensive reform plan that they hope to translate into legislation in coming weeks. Significant questions were unresolved in their outline, including what kind of system to create for allowing future visa applicants.
Senate Democrats hope to pass a bill by mid-year with a large, bipartisan vote that could improve chances for passage of a bill in the Republican-controlled House.
However, House Republican leaders have not committed to passing an immigration bill this year.
Reformers and minority groups are hoping the legislative effort gets a boost from conservative Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the new chairman of the House's immigration subcommittee.
On Tuesday, Gowdy captured the attention of the crowded House hearing room when he detailed the story of a 12-year-old immigrant from Sierra Leone whose hands were cut off by soldiers with machetes during the civil war in her country.
She "tried to run, tried to hide, asked God to let her die," Gowdy said.
But in a reference to those who have crossed into the United States illegally, he also warned that the federal government must enforce the laws it has on the books.
"What we cannot become is a nation where the law is enforced selectively, or not at all," Gowdy said.