POLITICS
03/20/2013 04:13 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Patrick Leahy: Immigration Talks Moving Too Slowly

WASHINGTON -- Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) expressed frustration on Wednesday with the pace of immigration talks, issuing a statement that a discussion needs to happen "out in the open" rather than allowing behind-the-scenes talks to drag on.

"For months I have urged the president to send his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform to the Senate," he said. "I understand he has delayed releasing it at the request of a few senators who are engaged in secret, closed door discussions on their own proposal and who committed to completing it by the beginning of March. That deadline and others have come and gone."

"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," he added later.

Leahy's committee handles immigration issues, and he has held a number of hearings on the topic already this session, including two this week. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) presided over a hearing Monday about how immigration reform should address women and families. On Wednesday, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) presided over a hearing that discussed how an immigration system can be "worthy of American values," including by treating immigrants more fairly in courts and detention.

Leahy said he wants to begin discussing an actual bill. The so-called "gang of eight," a group of senators working on an immigration bill, is aiming to release a proposal in April, after Congress leaves town for an Easter recess. President Barack Obama has threatened to send his own legislation to Congress for a vote, but said he will stay out of the process unless lawmakers stall in their own process for too long. Some, such as former Govs. Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi and Ed Rendell (D) of Pennsylvania, said Wednesday they think even the gang of eight's timeline is too optimistic.

As committees await a bill, they aren't able to dig into specifics, Leahy lamented.

"Without legislative language, there is nothing for the Judiciary Committee to consider this week at our mark up," Leahy said. "The upcoming recess period would have allowed all members of the committee and the American people to review the legislation. Now that process and our work will be delayed at least a month."

Several Republicans seem more likely to be pleased with the slow pace. Six senators, according to Judiciary Committee Ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), wrote a letter to Leahy on Tuesday that they want the committee to consider a litany of issues, potentially for more than a year.

For now, Leahy's committee is attempting to draw attention to some of the less-discussed issues as immigration reform talks take place in private. Coons, especially, has argued that the detention system must be seriously reformed, a topic related to undocumented immigrants but in the dark compared to the question of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Coons told HuffPost in an interview that it is important to consider detention reform and other justice issues now, even if some issues may be sorted out through broader legalization. He argued that Congress should consider expanding alternatives to detention that would save money and keep fewer people locked away if they were not considered a flight risk. He also said there should be more due process in immigrant courts, such as making sure there's more access to information about immigrants' options and representation for those who might not be able to argue their own case.

"Over the past few years I've become aware that although we think of our courts and our systems in the United States as protecting basic rights, the immigration system doesn't have those same protections, even where U.S. citizen children or families are directly impacted," he said.

He said during the hearing on Wednesday that "there are important elements our immigration law that [are] inconsistent with America’s values."

"Immigrants ought to be advised of their legal rights and have meaningful access to discovery," he said at the hearing. "Where necessary to meaningfully participate meaningfully, particularly in cases involving children and those with mental disabilities, counsel ought to be provided. These are not exceptional goals, and they do not describe our current system."

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