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(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, boards a senators-only elevator with his press secretary, Matthew Harakal, after Hatch's ceremonial swearing-in in the Old Senate Chamber, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013.
Utah Senators Lee, Hatch call for immigration reform's delay

First Published Mar 20 2013 09:37 am • Last Updated Mar 21 2013 07:54 am

Washington • A group of Republican senators, including Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, wants to put the brakes on immigration reform, calling for a series of hearings and maybe even years of debate before a bill comes up for a vote in the Judiciary Committee.

The request comes amid a call for quick action on legislation that would include a program to provide legal status and eventual citizenship to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. President Barack Obama has pressed Congress to act on an immigration bill within the first half of this year, and bipartisan groups in the House and Senate are working toward that goal.

At a glance

Lee’s stance on immigration

Sen. Mike Lee was one of eight senators working on a bipartisan plan for immigration reform, but withdrew from the group in late January when all members signed on to a recommendation that combined tougher border enforcement with setting up a process for those here illegally to eventually obtain citizenship.

In a statement at the time, Lee said: “These guidelines contemplate a policy that will grant special benefits to illegal immigrants based on their unlawful presence in the country.… Reforms to our complex and dysfunctional immigration system should not in any way favor those who came here illegally over the millions of applicants who seek to come here lawfully.”

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Hatch and Lee were among six Republicans to spell out their concerns in a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on Tuesday. Two GOP members of the committee didn’t sign the letter. They are Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who are part of a bipartisan eight-senator team working to release an immigration bill by April.

Leahy has said the committee will take up that proposal straight away, but the Republicans led by ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, argue that’s far too fast. They want to follow the playbook from the last major immigration overhaul in the mid-1980s, when a three-year debate included 100 hours of hearings involving 300 witnesses.

Before any vote, the GOP senators requested "that the public be given adequate time, consistent with past practice in handling complex comprehensive immigration legislation, to read and analyze the contents of any such bill."

They want hearings on topics ranging from a guest-worker program to the impact of legalizing undocumented immigrants on the larger workforce to the use of biometrics in issuing visas. And they want to be able to question Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

"If we are serious about protecting our national interest and the best interest of American workers," the letter states, "we must provide all members of the Senate, and most importantly, the public, a full and fair opportunity to become adequately informed."

Supporters of reform have argued that Congress has debated the issue for years, pointing to 2007 when Republicans rejected a proposal backed by then-President George W. Bush.

"We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate. We’ve been debating this a very long time. So it’s not as if we don’t know technically what needs to get done," Obama said in an address in late January. The next day Obama told a reporter with Telemundo that he wants Congress to act this year, preferably by summer.

Lee is one of 43 current senators who were not in the body during the 2007 debate and, unlike rising GOP stars Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, he has not backed an eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Neither has Hatch nor any of Utah’s four House members.

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Twitter: @mattcanham

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