Lee Delivers Remarks at Comprehensive Immigration Reform Hearing

April 19, 2013

WASHINGTON—Today, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) delivered the following remarks at the first Senate Judiciary hearing on comprehensive immigration reform legislation:

Virtually everyone agrees that our immigration system is broken and needs to be reformed.  For far too long we have made it comparatively easy for people to cross our borders and stay here illegally, and comparatively hard for those who seek to immigrate to our country through established, legal channels. 

But solving our immigration woes isn’t simple or straightforward.  We don’t face just one big immigration challenge.  It is a complex puzzle with dozens of interconnected pieces.  And just like the puzzles we all put together as children, some of the pieces can’t be incorporated until others are already in place. 

Given this unavoidable reality, it’s clear we are not going to be able to fix our entire immigration system overnight.  Nor could we hope to analyze and discuss even a small fraction of the most critical issues in one or two hearings before this Committee.  The process of reform will have to be considered and implemented in stages and over the course of many years.

Clearly, the challenges we face are hard and will take time to address.  So it is all the more important that we begin in earnest immediately.  I applaud the efforts of my colleagues who have worked hard to develop the proposal before us today.  Theirs has been an enormous undertaking and I appreciate their dedication to making progress toward lasting reform.

Today, I look forward to discussing a few key issues that are part of the enormous immigration puzzle.  I have introduced several pieces of immigration reform legislation, at least one of which has been incorporated into the bill we’re discussing today.  But at the outset I must express two primary concerns with the current bill and with this Committee’s current path.

First, like many Americans, I am wary of trying to do this all in one fell swoop.  Good policy never flows from massive bills that seek to fix every problem in a single, sweeping piece of legislation.  Few legislators—and perhaps fewer citizens—actually understand everything in such bills.  And no one can even pretend to comprehend all the moving pieces and likely results.  Such wide-ranging legislation inevitably produces unforeseen effects and unintended consequences.

Especially when it comes to our immigration system, some reforms are necessary prerequisites for other, subsequent reforms.  It makes little sense to make decisions about later stages before the essential foundations are even in place.  It’s like trying to put the roof on a new house before raising the walls that will hold it up.  In particular, this bill seeks to address the 11 million before other preconditions are actually satisfied—so it treats the 11 million as if they’re a single, monolithic group, all here for the same reasons, which they are not.

Trying to resolve every issue, all at once, is also politically problematic.  There is broad consensus on some necessary reforms, but others are highly controversial.   We ought not hijack commonsense and essential measures by linking them to unavoidably contentious ones.

My second concern is with the Committee’s process thus far.  Reforms of this magnitude and importance deserve more than a couple of hastily scheduled hearings.  This bill was not made available until Wednesday morning.  It totals 844 pages of complicated legislative text with dozens of component parts.  Given the unusually—and unnecessarily—compressed schedule, there has been no real opportunity for Senators, staff, or hearing witnesses to read—let alone understand and digest—the substance of the bill.

There is no way that we as a Committee could possibly be prepared this morning to debate more than a fraction of this massive bill.  It would be impossible to have a meaningful discussion with rigorous analysis under such circumstances.  Witnesses were asked to submit written testimony before they could have conceivably read the entire bill.  And even with the help of committed staff who have worked through the night in preparation, none of us can honestly say that we understand each provision or how all the pieces fit together.  Not even close. 

Immigration reform is far too complex and far too important to be rushed though Committee without informed discussion and serious debate.  A hearing just two days after receiving voluminous legislative text is completely inadequate for the American people to get answers to the many questions that such far-reaching reforms will inevitably raise.  I hope and trust that the Chairman—encouraged by the bill’s authors who sit on this Committee—will commit to hold a series of substantive hearings after Members have had sufficient time to read, understand, and begin to assess all the provisions under consideration.  The American people deserve nothing less than an open and honest process.

Having expressed these concerns, let me reiterate that I support fundamental reform of our immigration system.  I believe we have an historic opportunity to make progress on a number of key issues where there is broad consensus.  Such real and concrete progress shouldn’t be sacrificed to demands that we address every challenge at once, or that we seek to resolve the most contentious problems first.

That’s why I favor a sensible, incremental approach.  Republicans and Democrats share much common ground on many of the most immediate issues.  On essential elements like border security, employment verification, visa reform, guest worker programs, and high-skilled immigration to meet America’s economic needs, we are largely in agreement and could enact significant reforms.  We shouldn’t delay meaningful progress in these areas just because we have differences in a few others.

Still, each of these issues is complex and we should have robust and substantive debate over the best way to structure each such reform.  I look forward to beginning that discussion today.