WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy expressed frustration on Wednesday over the slow pace of immigration-reform efforts and acknowledged that it likely will take more than a month to get a legislative package together.

That assessment from the Vermont Democrat came just a day after five Republican committee members, led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member, sent a letter to Leahy expressing concern that immigration reform was being pushed through too hastily.

Noting that the initiative “potentially could be the most dramatic and consequential alteration of our immigration system in nearly 30 years, impacting nearly every aspect of our legal and economic structure, and increasing entitlement spending to historic levels,” the five said sufficient time should be allotted for a series of comprehensive hearings and to give the voting public an opportunity to familiarize itself with the issue.

“We believe the process we have set forth is necessary not only to ensure that members are properly educated on this complex measure, but also to ensure a fair and open process so that the American people know what is in any such bill,” the letter read.

In a statement released in advance of a committee hearing called Wednesday to delve into some aspects of immigration reform, Leahy chided a bipartisan group of senators splicing together an immigration game plan for conducting its business behind closed doors, saying he favored “an open and transparent process during which all 18 senators serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee will have the opportunity to participate and to propose or oppose ideas for reform.”

The group’s proposal was expected to be completed by the beginning of March. That deadline, Leahy noted, has come and gone. The lawmakers continue to negotiate over issues ranging from awarding citizenship to work visas.

“This process will take time,” Leahy said. “It will not be easy. There will be strongly held, differing points of view. Because we do not yet have legislative language to debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee will not be able to report a comprehensive immigration bill by the end of April, which was my goal.”

Regardless, it appears reform advocates are well on their way toward piecing together a comprehensive, bipartisan package with assistance, in some instances, coming from unexpected quarters.

On Tuesday, appearing before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party icon, asserted that “the Republican Party must embrace more legal immigration.” Paul said the nation must continue efforts to beef up enforcement efforts along the southern border but he also admitted “we aren’t going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants.”

“Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution,” he said. “I am here today to begin that conversation.”

Illegal immigrants must be treated with “understanding and compassion,” he said, saying that under his plan work visas would be afforded to those “who are willing to come forward and work.” They also would be allowed to go through the usual process to apply for citizenship. Bringing the 12 million “out of the shadows,” he said, will turn them into “taxpaying members of society.”

“If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, the House reportedly is close to composing its own bipartisan plan. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, the House Democratic whip, both acknowledged that a deal is close at hand.

“They are very close,” Hoyer said. “I think they’ve made real progress. I think the group of eight is a pretty broad group of people, representing a pretty broad stretch of philosophy in the House of Representatives.”

Details of the House plan have not been released.

Republicans have traditionally offered a cold shoulder to immigration-reform plans, killing a proposal from one of their own, former President George W. Bush, in 2007 that would have enhanced security, imposed tough workplace measures, created a temporary worker program, and legalized those already in the country.

But the GOP has been losing ground to Latinos, the fastest growing voting sector in the population, amid complaints that the party isn’t sensitive to their concerns. A recent report issued by the Republican National Committee urged lawmakers to adopt an immigration-reform bill to stem the tide.

“In what is being called its ‘autopsy’ of the last election, the Republican National Committee wrote that ‘Hispanic voters tell us our party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door,” Leahy said. “After slamming the door on our efforts for comprehensive immigration reform during the Bush administration, I welcome Republicans to this effort. While I still worry that too many continue to oppose a straightforward pathway to citizenship, that is a discussion we need to have out in the open, in front of the American people.”

At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Ahilan T. Arulanantham, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project, urged the panel to make significant changes in the deportation process, noting that many of those caught in the system have no clue about what they’re facing.

“Deportation is always considered a civil penalty, and therefore deportation hearings lack virtually all of the protections associated with criminal punishment, despite the potentially life-or-death death consequences at stake for many immigrants,” Arulanantham said. “As a result, immigrants have no right to a prompt bail hearing, and in many cases no right to a bail hearing at all. They have no right to a speedy trial, and never go before a jury. Their cases are not presided over by a judge as we commonly think of judges – they are adjudicated by administrative law judges who serve at the pleasure of the attorney general.”

Pamela A. Stampp, an immigration attorney, supported the claim and asserted that immigrants facing deportation should be afforded an attorney if they can’t afford one. She cited a study that shows 60 percent of immigrants placed in removal proceedings go unrepresented by counsel.

Congress can build an immigration system “worthy of American values,” Stampp said, by “ensuring the interests of justice are served, the costs to the taxpayer are reduced and the efficiency of the administration of justice are enhanced.”

But Jan Ting, a former assistant commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, noted that the U.S. has “never provided at taxpayer expense legal representation in civil matters,” even in high-stakes litigation involving issues like home ownership or lost jobs.

“You have to think about American citizens first before forcing them to pay for lawyers for non-citizens,” he said.

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