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Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 - Continued -

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Location: Washington, DC


COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM ACT OF 2006--Continued -- (Senate - May 23, 2006)

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Mr. OBAMA. Thank you very much.

Mr. President, I come to the floor to briefly discuss amendment No. 4177. It pertains to title III and I believe will be called in short order. It is a bipartisan effort to create the kind of employment verification system that will ensure that American workers are protected. It is an amendment that I worked on with Senator Grassley, as well as Senator Kennedy. And as I indicated, it will be offered shortly.

One of the central components of immigration reform is enforcement. This bill contains a number of important provisions to beef up border security. But that is not enough. Real enforcement also means drying up the pool of jobs that encourages illegal immigration. That can only happen if employers do not hire illegal workers. Unfortunately, our current employer enforcement system does little to nothing to deter illegal immigrants from finding work.

Just a few statistics: Overall, the number of workplace arrests of illegal immigrants fell from 17,552 in 1997 to 451 in 2002, even as illegal immigration grew during that time. Moreover, between 25 percent to 40 percent of all undocumented immigrants are people who have overstayed their visas. They are not folks who will be stopped by a wall. Rather, the only way to effectively deter overstays is to reduce their access to employment.

When Congress last passed an immigration bill in 1986, we did not provide any meaningful way for employers to check legal eligibility to work. Currently, employees can prove their legal status by showing a variety of documents, and employers are supposed to record their inspection of such documents by filling out an I-9 form for each employee. As a consequence, the market for fraudulent documents--fake Social Security cards, driver's licenses, birth certificates--has exploded.

Unfortunately, with more than 100 million employees in more than 6 million workplaces, and only about 788 Wage and Hour investigators, employer sanctions have basically become a nuisance requirement to maintain records, not a serious risk of penalty. As a result, the number of ``intent to fine'' notices issued to employers for hiring undocumented workers dropped from 417 in 1999 to just 3 in 2004. I want to repeat that. There were three employers in the entire United States in 2004 who were fined for hiring undocumented workers.

Now, understandably, employers cannot always detect forged documents. And employers who reject workers with questionable documents risk employment discrimination suits. That is why we need a better alternative. We need an electronic verification system that can effectively detect the use of fraudulent documents, significantly reduce the employment of illegal workers, and give employers the confidence that their workforce is legal.

When Congress first considered comprehensive immigration reform in April, the legislation on the floor addressed this problem by creating a national employment eligibility verification system. Senators GRASSLEY, KYL, and I all thought this was a good idea in theory, but we had concerns with the design of the system.

Senators GRASSLEY and KYL proposed that a verification system be implemented nationally within 18 months. Senators KENNEDY and I proposed that the system be phased in over 5 years but that it also included additional accuracy and privacy standards, as well as strict prohibitions on the use of the system to discriminate against legal workers.

Over the past few weeks, we have been in discussions to try to negotiate a compromise. I am pleased that we have reached an agreement by which all employers would have to participate by 18 months after the Department of Homeland Security receives the appropriations necessary to receive the funds needed to fund the system. All new employees hired would have to be run through a system. A series of privacy and accuracy standards would protect citizens and legal immigrants from errors in the system and breaches of private information. To make sure that employers take the system seriously, we strengthen civil penalties for employers who hire unauthorized workers, and we establish criminal penalties for repeat violators.

I think we worked in a constructive, bipartisan manner to design an employment verification system that is fair to legal workers and tough on illegal workers. I think it is a good amendment. I urge my colleagues to support it

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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I congratulate Senator Grassley and all who worked on this amendment. This is probably the single most important thing we can do in terms of reducing the inflow of undocumented workers--making sure we can actually enforce in a systematic way rules governing who gets hired.

It is an amendment that has bipartisan support, as Senator Grassley indicated. It will increase fines. It will provide for an electronic data system that is effective.

I urge all colleagues on my side of the aisle to vote for the amendment.

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