SECURING AMERICA'S BORDERS ACT
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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the compromise that we have reached around a comprehensive immigration bill.
A group of Members led by Senators Hagel, Martinez, Salazar, McCain, Kennedy, Durbin, Lieberman, Graham, and others, have agreed to move this debate to a sensible center. In doing so, they have bridged a wide divide and demonstrated what the U.S. Senate is capable of when it comes together to work on an important problem affecting the lives of all Americans. So I commend this group that I have had the honor of being a part of for moving closer to an agreement that serves the twin purposes of securing our borders and bringing undocumented workers out of the shadows.
To assess our progress on this issue, we need only look back on where we were when this debate started last week. Many Members on the other side of the aisle opposed any plan that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers who are living in the United States. I think the fact that, a little over a week later, we are now at a point where it is recognized that a path to citizenship should be part of a comprehensive package; that it will, in fact, improve our ability to monitor these workers and to make sure they are not depressing the wages of American workers; and that the undocumented population should have the opportunity to live out the immigrant dream over the long term is a positive step forward. I am especially pleased that the compromise includes changes to the guestworker program, first proposed by Senator Feinstein and me, to protect American wages and ensure that Americans get a first shot and a fair shot at jobs before they go to guestworkers.
Everyone in the Senate who has introduced a comprehensive immigration bill, including the Administration, has called for a new guestworker program. I have to say that there are some concerns I have with a guestworker program. Clearly, there is a consensus among employers and the Chamber of Commerce that they need greater access to legal foreign workers in order to avoid the disconnect between supply and demand. In recognition of that consensus, the Judiciary Committee bill created a new temporary worker program. But many experts have expressed concerns about the size of that guestworker program and the effect it could have on American workers' wages and job opportunities. I think many of those concerns are legitimate.
The Judiciary Committee bill would have allowed 400,000 new temporary ``essential'' workers per year, adjusted up or down by market triggers. It would have created a 3-year visa, renewable for 3 years, with portability to allow guestworkers to move from employer to employer. It would have required that employers first seek out U.S. workers, and that guestworkers be granted labor protections and market wage requirements.
Under the Judiciary Committee proposal, the guestworker could apply for permanent status within the new employment-based cap if his employer sponsored him, or the guestworker could self-petition to stay if he worked for 4 years.
In order for any guestworker system to work, it has to be properly structured to turn people who would otherwise be illegal immigrants into legal guestworkers. And it has to provide protections for American workers who perceive their jobs to be at stake.
Unfortunately, I believe the Judiciary Committee did not quite strike the right balance. But we can do better. We can ensure that guestworkers are not just unfair competition for American workers; rather, that they are a legitimate source of critical workers.
To that end, Senator Feinstein and I offered an amendment to retain the underlying structure of the program presented in the Judiciary bill, but to address some legitimate concerns that have been brought to our attention.
Let me discuss some of the key provisions in this amendment.
First, Senator Feinstein and I originally sought to lower the cap on guestworkers from 400,000 to 300,000. The compromise bill lowers the cap to 325,000 workers. That's a significant decrease that should give some comfort to American workers.
Second, our amendment ensures that localities with an unemployment rate for low-skilled workers of 9 percent or higher do not see an inflow of guestworkers under any circumstances.
Third, our amendment ensures that guestworkers receive a prevailing wage, whether or not they are covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
Finally, we guarantee that any job offered to a guestworker is first advertised to Americans at a fair wage.
These are fair, commonsense changes. Our amendment recognizes that American workers will be better off if we replace the uncontrolled stream of undocumented workers with a regulated stream of guestworkers who enter the country legally and have full access to labor rights. Replacing an illegal workforce with legal guestworkers who can defend themselves will raise wages and working conditions for everyone.
I think the amendment Senator Feinstein and I have offered will ensure that an employer seeks a temporary worker only as a last resort, and only after making a good-faith and fair offer to American workers, which is why this amendment has been endorsed by the Laborers' International Union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, SEIU, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
I am pleased at the work that has been done. My understanding is that the compromise Hagel-Martinez legislation that is being prepared will provide for these terms. However, I remain concerned. We have to make absolutely certain--given the delicate balance between security, border protection, and treating all workers fairly--that we do not end up having a series of amendments that effectively gut this legislation. We also have to make sure that, if this bill is negotiated with the House in a conference committee, we do not end up with a program that creates a second-tier class of workers who cannot be citizens, and can be exploited by their employers.
I am pleased at the progress that we have made since last week. I hope we continue it. I am looking forward, on a bipartisan basis, to addressing these concerns in the debate that follows over the next several days.
Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.