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Public Statements

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM ACT OF 2006 -- (Senate - May 17, 2006)

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Mr. OBAMA. Thank you very much, Mr. President.

AMENDMENT NO. 3971, AS MODIFIED

Mr. President, while the staff is consulting--we thought that the modifications had been agreed to--what I would like to do is tell you the essence of the amendment that I plan to offer. As soon as we get the go-ahead, we will offer it for immediate consideration.

Mr. President, I rise today to discuss amendment No. 3971, which pertains to the guest worker provisions in the bill. I have some significant concerns with respect to the guest worker provisions. I am concerned that the guest worker provisions are premised on the idea that American workers are not available to fill the jobs that are currently being filled by undocumented workers or foreign guest workers. I am not certain that is the case.

Recently, I was on vacation in Arizona. I was staying at a hotel, and I noticed that all the individuals who were serving drinks and lunch at the swimming pool appeared to be from the West Indies. So I asked one of them: Where are you from? He said: I am from Jamaica. I asked: Are all the guys here from Jamaica? He said: Yes. I asked: How do you come here? He said: Well, I work for a company that essentially brings us in for 9 months during the high season. Then during the low season of vacation we will go back. And they take care of all their paperwork and handle all their immigration issues.

And he said: Did you notice that all the women who are cleaning the rooms are from China? I said: You know, I happened to notice that.

It turned out they have the same arrangement.

What it indicated was essentially you have a situation in which international temp agencies are being set up where workers will come in for 9 months, doing jobs that I think many Americans would be willing to do if they were available.

Now, having said that, there are some industries in which guest workers and agricultural workers are absolutely necessary. So the question is: How do we create this program but make sure it is tight enough that it does not disadvantage workers? To do that we are going to have to make the prevailing wage requirements of this bill real for all workers and all jobs.

We have to ensure that communities where American unemployment rates are high will not experience unnecessary competition from guest workers. So to that end, I will be offering an amendment, as modified, along with Senators FEINSTEIN and BINGAMAN, to strengthen the prevailing wage language and to freeze the guest worker program in communities with unemployment rates for low-skilled workers of 9 percent or greater.

This amendment would establish a true prevailing wage for all occupations to ensure that guest workers are paid a wage that does not lower American wages. The bill on the floor requires that employers advertise jobs to American workers at a prevailing wage before offering that job to a guest worker. And it requires that employers pay guest workers a prevailing wage. But the bill, currently, without the amendment, does not clarify how to calculate the prevailing wage for workers not covered by a collective bargaining agreement or the Service Contract Act of 1965, which governs contracts entered into by the Federal Government. That leaves most jobs and most workers unprotected.

The bill currently before us simply states that an employer has to provide working conditions and benefits such as those provided to workers ``similarly'' employed. So as a consequence, a bad employer could easily game the system by offering an artificially low wage to American workers and just count on those workers not taking the job. The employer could then offer that job at below-average wages to guest workers, knowing they would take it to get here legally.

That is not good for American workers, and it is not good for guest workers.

My amendment fixes that language. It directs the employer to use Department of Labor data to calculate a prevailing wage in those cases in which neither a collective bargaining agreement nor the Service Contract Act applies. That would mean an employer would have to make an offer at an average wage across comparable employers instead of just an average wage that she or he is willing to pay. The amendment also would establish stronger prohibitions on the guest worker program in high unemployment areas. The bill currently bars use of the program if the unemployment rate for low-skilled workers in a metropolitan area averages more than 11 percent. Our amendment would lower that unemployment rate to 9 percent of workers unemployed with a high school diploma or less. There is no reason any community with large pockets of unemployed Americans needs guest workers.

This is a good, commonsense amendment which is endorsed by SEIU, the Laborers Union, the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, and the National Council of La Raza. I urge my colleagues to support it.

I will actually call up the amendment to be read as soon as it comes back. I think there are some discussions taking place right now.

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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, we have been having some discussion. My understanding is that the concerns that have been raised have to do with the underlying bill and not my amendment. As a consequence, I ask unanimous consent to send to the desk amendment No. 3971, as modified, and ask for its immediate consideration.

I also ask unanimous consent to add Senators LIEBERMAN and LANDRIEU as cosponsors of the amendment.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there objection to setting the pending amendments aside?

Without objection, the pending amendments are set aside. Does the Senator have a modified version?

Mr. OBAMA. Yes.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will report.

The assistant legislative clerk read as follows:

The Senator from Illinois [Mr. OBAMA], for himself, Mrs. Feinstein, Mr. Bingaman, Mr. Lieberman, and Ms. Landrieu, proposes an amendment numbered 3971, as modified.

Mr. OBAMA. I ask unanimous consent that reading of the amendment be dispensed with.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

The amendment is as follows:
(Purpose: To amend the temporary worker program)

Beginning on page 266, strike line 13 and all that follows through 267, line 3, and insert the following:

``(C) PREVAILING WAGE LEVEL.--For purposes of subparagraph (A)(ii), the prevailing wage level shall be determined in accordance as follows:

``(i) If the job opportunity is covered by a collective bargaining agreement between a union and the employer, the prevailing wage shall be the wage rate set forth in the collective bargaining agreement.

``(ii) If the job opportunity is not covered by such an agreement and it is in an occupation that is covered by a wage determination under a provision of subchapter IV of chapter 31 of title 40, United States Code, or the Service Contract Act of 1965 (41 U.S.C. 351 et seq.), the prevailing wage level shall be the appropriate statutory wage.

``(iii)(I) If the job opportunity is not covered by such an agreement and it is in an occupation that is not covered by a wage determination under a provision of subchapter IV of chapter 31 of title 40, United States Code, or the Service Contract Act of 1965 (41 U.S.C. 351 et seq.), the prevailing wage level shall be based on published wage data for the occupation from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including the Occupational Employment Statistics survey, Current Employment Statistics data, National Compensation Survey, and Occupational Employment Projections program. If the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have wage data applicable to such occupation, the employer may base the prevailing wage level on another wage survey approved by the Secretary of Labor.

``(II) The Secretary shall promulgate regulations applicable to approval of such other wage surveys that require, among other things, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics determine such surveys are statistically viable.

On page 273, line 7, strike ``unskilled and low-skilled workers'' and insert ``workers who have not completed any education beyond a high school diploma''.

On page 273, line 9, strike ``11.0'' and insert ``9.0'', and on line 4, after ``immigrant'', add ``is not agriculture based and''.

Mr. OBAMA. I already explained the amendment, Mr. President. My suggestion would be that if the manager of the bill has no objection, we go ahead. I want to make sure I am going in the appropriate order, given the manager's fine job of keeping this process moving.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Pennsylvania.

Mr. SPECTER. Mr. President, I have no objection to proceeding to consider the amendment, as modified. There are still Senators on this side of the aisle reviewing it. We are not yet prepared to take a position. I think it is entirely appropriate to consider the discussion. I believe, as I said to Senator Obama privately, that we will work it out.

I yield to the Senator from Illinois for further debate.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Illinois.

Mr. OBAMA. As I indicated, this amendment essentially says that the prevailing wage provisions in the underlying bill should be tightened to ensure that they apply to all workers and not just some workers. The way the underlying bill is currently structured, essentially those workers who fall outside of Davis-Bacon projects or collective bargaining agreements or other provisions are not going to be covered. That could be 25 million workers or so which could be subject to competition from guest workers, even though they are prepared to take the jobs that the employers are offering, if they were offered at a prevailing wage. My hope would be that we can work out whatever disagreements there are on the other side. This is a mechanism to ensure that the guest worker program is not used to undercut American workers and to put downward pressure on the wages of American workers.

Everybody in this Chamber has agreed that if we are going to have a guest worker program, it should only be made available where there is a genuine need that has been shown by the employers that American workers are not available for those jobs. Without this amendment, that will not be the case, and we will have a situation in which we have guest workers who are taking jobs that Americans are prepared to take, if, in fact, prevailing wages were provided for. I don't know anybody here--and I have been working closely with those who are interested in passing a bill--who wants to see a situation in which we are creating a mechanism to undermine the position of American workers.

I ask that this amendment be considered, and I will hold off on asking for the yeas and nays until we have had a chance to discuss it further.

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