Byron York

With Republicans now in control of the House Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder and other Justice Department officials are going to be answering a lot of questions in the next two years. "We're going to start fast," promises Rep. Lamar Smith, new chairman of the committee, as he lists a bunch of priorities: immigration, national security, the constitutionality of Obamacare, lawsuit abuse, intellectual property and more.

There are many areas in which Republicans and Holder are likely to disagree, but the most contentious could be immigration, starting with the enforcement of federal laws to prevent the employment of illegal immigrants. Ask Smith what he'll be investigating, and it's the first thing he mentions. "One initial hearing will be on work-site enforcement," he says. "We want to find out why the administration is not doing more to enforce current laws. Workplace enforcement has dropped 70 percent under the Obama administration."

To Smith, that's a bad idea at any time, but particularly so in a period of 9.4 percent unemployment. "We need every available job in America to go to legal workers, to citizens and legal immigrants," he says. While the administration seems focused almost exclusively on illegal immigrants who have felony records, Smith wants to concentrate on workplaces, with more use of the E-Verify system and other ways to ensure that businesses hire only workers who are in the country legally. Talk to Republicans these days, and everything is about jobs. They campaigned by slamming Democrats for not paying enough attention to the issue in 2009 and 2010, and now that they are in power, they are determined to frame their actions in terms of jobs. So the bill to repeal Obamacare is titled the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." Likewise, when Smith appeared on Fox News on Tuesday and was asked what he will do about illegal immigration, he answered simply, "The main thing we're going to do is create jobs for Americans."

At the moment, the focus on jobs means Smith is steering away from some of the hottest-button immigration issues. Asked about the Obama administration's lawsuit against the state of Arizona, the Texas Republican is quick to condemn it -- he says it is "misguided and unnecessary" and sends the message that the administration "is not interested in having our immigration laws enforced" -- but doesn't see much that he can do about it as chairman. "Not any more than I have already done, which is I have weighed in on the side of Arizona," Smith says. "That's now in the courts, and it is the courts who will make that determination."

But other GOP voices on the Judiciary Committee are speaking more forcefully on those hot-button issues. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a member of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, is passionate on the subject. "There are two areas in America where the law is ignored and sometimes laughed at, and immigration is one of them," King says. (The other, he adds, is election law.) King wants to change that.

King is co-sponsoring a bill, "The Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011," that would address the problem of "anchor babies." It's a question full of constitutional complexities; birthright citizenship is grounded in the 14th Amendment, and many experts believe only a constitutional amendment can change it. King feels otherwise. In any event, it's an issue that Smith says the full committee will not be addressing in its first months.

King would also like to look into so-called "sanctuary cities," that is, cities whose officials offer protection to illegal immigrants and openly defy federal immigration law. He's also eager to do more on border security. "We need to restart the push, to complete the task of building a fence and a wall on our southern border," he says. But as far as the full committee is concerned, that's not on Smith's list of priorities to be addressed first. Right now, the message is jobs.

On that theme, Holder is likely to face a lot of questions about the administration's immigration policy in the nation's workplaces. Whatever the disagreements, Smith is taking care to sound non-adversarial. He and Holder have had lunch together and spoken on the phone, Smith says. "I expect that we will get cooperation from the Department of Justice," he says. "I see no reason to threaten them or issue subpoenas at this point."

Well, it's early.


Byron York

Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner