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File -- Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, second from right, has hired the national political director of the tea party umbrella group FreedomWorks to head up part of the Utah Republican's re-election campaign for 2016. Russ Walker will serve as national political director for Lee's campaign. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Lee rules out ‘amnesty’ as he works on immigration-reform team

First Published Dec 12 2012 03:32 pm • Last Updated Apr 08 2013 11:32 pm

Washington • Sen. Mike Lee opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants in his 2010 campaign and he continues to fight it now, which makes his inclusion in a bipartisan group working on comprehensive reform all the more surprising.

The Utahn is one of four Republicans holding private talks with four Democrats in hopes of overhauling the nation’s immigration laws by the end of 2013.

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And, yet, Lee is the only participant who has never supported a pathway to legal status or citizenship for the more than 11 million people in this country illegally.

"I’m not interested in anything that offers amnesty and I’ve made no secret about that," he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday. "But there, I think, is potential to find common ground."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is spearheading the effort, personally asked Lee to participate, in part because the two had worked on a smaller immigration bill in 2011. Schumer refused to talk about the working group or Lee’s involvement, but he did offer a quick compliment of his Utah colleague.

"In general, I have tremendous respect for Mike Lee even though we disagree on a lot of issues," said Schumer. "He is thoughtful and hard working."

The other Democrats involved are Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado. The Republicans joining Lee are Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen.-elect Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Such working groups are common in the Senate, though their success is not. A similar "Gang of Eight" has met for the past few years in an attempt to craft a fiscal reform bill, a goal that has eluded the group.

What some staffers have jokingly referred to as the "Gang of Ocho" has met and had preliminary talks, though the hard negotiations won’t take place for months and as a result the members are hesitant to discuss the effort in detail.

Menendez welcomed Lee, one of the Senate’s most conservative members, to the conversation, which has largely stagnated since Congress rejected immigration reform pushed by President George W. Bush in 2007. All of the participants, except for Bennet, Flake and Lee were part of that effort.

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"I think some of his libertarian streaks actually may play very well in the question of immigration reform," Menendez said of Lee. "He obviously brings a dimension to the group that can be helpful in getting what I think is a national security concern, a national economic concern and a basic fundamental justice issue."

Legal immigration • Lee wants to focus on improving enforcement of immigration laws and simplifying the complicated process to obtain visas, but he is also open to making it easier for illegal immigrants to gain legal access to the United States if they return to their home country.

"We want to make the legal immigration process as easy to understand as possible," Lee said. "We want to make it run as smoothly as possible and we want to make illegal immigration less easy and less appealing."

He doesn’t favor the Dream Act, which he considers amnesty, but is open to "some kind of asylum" for children of illegal immigrants who have no connection to the country their parents came from.

And while he has opposed an overarching immigration bill in the past, Lee said he can see some value in combining at least border security, immigration enforcement and a streamlined visa process into one package.

That kind of approach infuriates Mark Alvarez, an immigration attorney in Salt Lake City, who believes any deal should include a way for undocumented immigrants to become citizens.

"If you are serious about immigration reform," he said, "the first question is what are you going to do about the 11 million people who are here without documents."

Alvarez was dumbfounded to see Lee’s name on the list of senators spearheading what is expected to be one of the year’s biggest public policy debates.

"I was immediately skeptical of Lee," he said. "It struck me as odd. He was the oddest member of that group."

Alvarez, who also co-hosts the "Sin Rodeos" Spanish-language radio show, remains upset at Lee’s use of the derisive term "anchor baby" in his 2010 campaign. Lee used the term a few times while arguing against allowing birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born in this nation and the senator has since backed away from the term, calling it "imprecise."

Alvarez wasn’t the only one surprised by Lee’s involvement in the private talks.

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