Leahy Admits Panel Will Miss Immigration Deadline; GOP Says Take It Slow

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.