Sen. Leahy faults bipartisan immigration bill as not 'up to our values'

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) on Friday criticized a bipartisan immigration bill introduced this week as failing to “live up to our values.”

Leady faulted the 844-page bill, negotiated by four Democratic and four Republican senators, for spending billions on border security and requiring illegal immigrants to wait for at least a decade to win permanent legal status.

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“I fear it does not live up to our values,” said Leahy, a key figure in the immigration debate who was not involved in negotiating the legislation.

“This bill includes what some are calling ‘triggers’ that I am concerned could long delay green cards for those who we want to make full and contributing participants in our society,” he said.

Leahy’s panel has jurisdiction over immigration. He plans to mark up the bill in May, when he and other lawmakers will have a chance to amend it.

“I cannot help but question whether spending billions more on a fence between the United States and Mexico is really the best use of taxpayer dollars,” Leahy said at a Friday hearing on the bipartisan bill.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was scheduled to testify Friday but her appearance was postponed because she has been focused on the national security response to the bombing in Boston.

Leahy also raised concerns that same-sex couples would not have the same access to family visas as heterosexual couples.

“I am disappointed that the legislation does not treat all American families equally,” he said. “We must end the discrimination that gay and lesbian families face in our immigration law.”

Another concern is the diminished weight it would give to sibling relationships in the calculus for awarding visas.

“I also am concerned about changes to the visa system for siblings and the lack of clarity about how the point-based visa system will work in practice,” he said.

He acknowledged the bill is a compromise that “involved difficult concessions.”

Leahy praised the bill for addressing backlogs of immigrants applying for family- and employer-sponsored visas, putting illegal immigrants who came to the country as children on a faster track to legal status, and making it easier for law enforcement officials to use illegal immigrants as witnesses and help those who are victims of domestic violence.

He also commented on its positive impact on Vermont’s dairy industry and the nation’s tourism industry.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel, complained Leahy is rushing consideration of the bill. He warned that colleagues should take their time so as not to repeat the mistakes of 1986, the last time Congress granted a path to citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants.

“I think we’re off to a rough start. The majority is rushing us to read and analyze the bill,” Grassley said. “It’s just under 900 pages and it tackles some very important issues. There are some new concepts. Most members and staff on this committee have not read the bill in its entirety before this hearing.”

Grassley noted that prior to a mark up of immigration reform legislation in 1982, the Judiciary Committee held 100 hours of hearings and called 300 witnesses. In 1983, the panel’s immigration subcommittee held four hearings before reporting a bill to the full committee.

“This is not something to be rushed. We have to get this right. Otherwise the goal of the bipartisan group – to solve the problem once and for all --- will not be met,” he said.

Leahy has scheduled a second hearing on the bill for Monday.

“The dysfunction in our current immigration system affects all of us,” Leahy said. “We must act deliberately and without delay.”