SALT LAKE CITY — Members of Utah's congressional delegation aren't mustering much enthusiasm for the effort under way by a group of eight senators to come up with a bipartisan deal on immigration reform.
"Skeptical" was how Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, described his reaction to the effort he briefly was involved with before announcing in January he couldn't support a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally.
"Like my colleagues, I am committed to securing the border, fixing our legal immigration system, addressing workplace verification and dealing humanely with those who are in the country illegally," Lee said in a statement Tuesday.
"But I remain skeptical that the best way to reform our system is with one large comprehensive bill. I'd like to see Congress first tackle some of the issues we can all agree on, such as border and interior enforcement and fixing our broken visa system," he said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has also questioned the approach to immigration reform being taken by the group that includes Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
The group, known as the "Gang of Eight," has worked behind closed doors since December and is expected to unveil a comprehensive immigration plan as soon as next week.
Hatch, Rubio and other conservatives have asked for extensive debate on the plan, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a letter to Rubio there is an "urgent need" for Congress to deal "quickly and decisively" with immigration.
Hatch has called for the debate over immigration reform to go through the regular public process and warned in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune that the group's "proposal isn't legislation yet — it's bullet points and themes."
In a statement to the Deseret News, Hatch was more circumspect.
“I appreciate the hard work my colleagues have been doing on this important issue," Hatch said. "As always, the devil is in the details, and I look forward to reviewing the proposal once it’s released and put into legislative text.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he wants to see how the plan addresses border security. Last year, the Senate failed to pass a Bishop bill allowing border patrol vehicles better access to federally protected lands along the border between the United States and Mexico.
"The first question at every town hall meeting deals with the border. There is a lot of anger and anxiety about that," Bishop said, noting that other proposals in the plan will be "easier for people to accept if the public knows the border is secure."
Bishop said both the Senate and a less-publicized bipartisan group of House members also working on an immigration plan "are sincere in what they're trying to do." But he wasn't ready to predict how their efforts will be received in Congress.
"To be honest, I don't know," he said.
Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, was more optimistic.
"Anytime Democrats and Republicans are talking together on an issue in Washington, that's cause for enthusiasm," Matheson said, describing a bipartisan deal as the only way for Congress to finally move forward on immigration reform.
"I think it can happen," he said of Congress passing a comprehensive plan. "I think there is an opportunity because there is a general recognition throughout the political spectrum that something has to be done."
Still, Matheson said, "that doesn't mean there aren't all kinds of pitfalls ahead that could derail potential legislation."