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... at least one that needs no introduction, Senator John McCain, out of Arizona, and also needs no introduction, Congressman Jeff Flake also from Arizona.
And we are here today to talk about the introduction of our new legislation called the Border Security and Immigration Improvement Act, which does have a number to it, which is H.R. 2899. Having been introduced all of two hours ago, we do have a number attacked to it.
This is legislation that I know none of you in this room have been hearing about for some time. And back home I've been talking for months, all of us have been talking for months, to our constituents and business groups and labor groups, about the introduction of this legislation. And I think some people have wondered where it is and when it's coming. Well, here it is today. And we're just very pleased to be able to have this piece of legislation.
It turns out it's a complicated issue. And I'm going to just talk for a moment about what I see as the key things that it does and the reasons that it's important for labor. And I'll leave the issues of compassion and homeland security and immigration, the border issues, to Congressman Flake and Senator McCain.
We are going to be facing, in the United States, a very serious labor shortage problem in the future. What we are experiencing right now with increased migration into the United States, legal and illegal immigration, is something that we're going to continue to experience in the future.
As the baby boomers get older, we see fewer people taking the manual jobs, the hardworking jobs. We're going to have a greater need for temporary workers coming into the United States. This legislation attempts to address that in a humanitarian, humane way that avoids the problems that we have along the border, which will be discussed in just a moment, but pose such problems to security and also that result in the terrible deaths of people along the border.
But as Americans become more educated and skilled, it's often difficult to find workers who are in positions that we are sometimes considered unskilled. And I'm not talking just about agriculture, but I'm also talking about jobs that are in the hospitality industry, for example, in construction, in all of those kinds of things. Sometimes you find that it's difficult to find Americans that are willing to do those jobs, and yet they are vital to the health of our economy.
And that's why we have found that temporary workers, people who come in, fill those jobs. But we've had a haphazard way of doing it. With the exception of a very small number in agriculture, there's been no legal way to bring those people in. I should say small number in agriculture and, of course, a fairly substantial number also in the high-skilled jobs. But in between there's very little that we have that allows people to come in in a legal fashion.
So the new legislation that we're proposing -- and you have a packet that explains basically what it would do -- would create a new registry, where employers could go and register jobs. They would have 14 days in which any American could show up and apply for that and, if qualified, could be hired. But if not, they would be certified and be eligible to hire somebody who has a new category of visa that would enable this person to come into the United States. They would apply for that visa in their home country. They would come into the United States with that job.
It's a visa that can be renewed every two years. It allows them to stay in the United States for a period of time, to travel back and forth, to travel legally in the country and have all the protections, labor protections, that otherwise would not exist.
The more controversial aspect of this legislation, of course, is the provision that says that people who are already in this country illegally can also adjudicate their status.
But it is not an amnesty provision. I want to underscore that: It is not an amnesty provision, because they do not automatically get amnesty. They would be able to adjudicate their position, to adjudicate their status, but only coming in line behind those who are already coming into this country legally through the new visa program for temporary workers.
So after a period of time they would be able to adjudicate their status to the same as those who are coming on the temporary worker, and then eventually, all of them would be able to apply for permanent residency, which of course makes them eligible eventually to become citizens of the United States.
So it does put them in the queue, but it puts them in the queue behind those who have chosen to follow the legal process. So I think it's important to recognize that this is not an amnesty provision.
There are many other questions which I'm sure you'll have. Let me just turn it over to Senator McCain, for his comments, and then to Congressman Flake for some comments.
I'm pleased to be here with my two friends and colleagues from the state of Arizona, Congressman Kolbe and Congressman Flake.
It may come to you as a little bit curious that we are all from the state of Arizona. The fact is that last week, earlier this week, the body of -- Tuesday -- the body of an unidentified man was found near Douglas. On the same day, human remains were found near Sasabee (ph). Wednesday afternoon agents found a third body in western Pima County, after a group of undocumented immigrants notified authorities.
That was the 113th body that has been found in the desert of Arizona this year -- 113 -- significantly up from last year.
There is a human tragedy going on as we speak, and that is good and decent human beings are dying in the desert trying to get to the United States of America, so they can get a job and feed themselves and their families.
And it should be of some interest that I've just been told that it's been over three Congresses since any legislation has been introduced to address the issue of immigration.
I would also point out that since September 11 an entirely new dimension has been added to this issue, because we now have grave concerns about border security.
And anyone who has visited our southwestern border will attest to the fact that our borders are not secure. In fact, our wildlife refugees are being destroyed.
In fact, we had drug smugglers punching through barbed wire fences in SUVs, and all kinds of things are happening, most of which we don't know what is happening.
But the other dimension of this issue is that there are people who do get to the United States and don't die in the desert and are working across the southwest and across America and are being denied any fundamental labor protections or safety protections, or being exploited in many cases, because they are not here legally. And for us to ignore that problem, of course in my view, is really unconscionable.
This is a balanced piece of legislation. It addresses the two important aspects of this issue. One is, obviously, an orderly way for American citizens, for people to become an American citizen and also a way for people to find work and do work that other Americans will not do. It's a fact that there are jobs that American citizens will not do.
And this proposal allows a certain period of time for these jobs to be made available to American citizens. And if American citizens don't choose to take those jobs, then they would be open in an orderly fashion to citizens from other countries.
I think that it's important that we start this dialogue. It's very important that we start to address this issue.
Now, I'm told that there will be criticism from various groups here in Washington of this proposal that Congressman Kolbe and Congressman Flake and I are initiating.
I would ask you two questions. Are you so far away from Arizona that you're not concerned about people dying in the desert?
And my second question to those who oppose this legislation is what's your proposal? What's your proposal?
The point is that we want to work with everybody who is interested in this issue, particularly Hispanic organizations, but business people and others who want to help us resolve this compelling humanitarian issue, which has great urgency at least in the minds of us who pick up our newspaper every day and find another body found and read about another body found dead in the desert simply because that person wanted to come and feed themselves and their families. And we believe that the issue needs to be addressed. We think it's a fair and balanced way.
We know that there's 6 million to 10 million people in America who are not citizens. There has to be an orderly process for that issue to be addressed. We think that this is a way of doing it. This is a process for them to obtain citizenship.
And to only say that we have a program for people to obtain citizenship, we did that once, back in 1987. We gave them an amnesty. And people who here illegally then were made citizens.
And if all we do is address that side of the equation, 10 or 15 years from now, we'll have another request and demand for amnesty, when we're not solving the problem, and we will still have people who are entering this country illegally and taking jobs without any kind of labor protection, without any kind of minimum wage, without any kind of protection of the laws that protect the citizens of the United States of America. We don't think that's fair.
I appreciate being here with my colleagues.
And before I start, I just want to recognize Margaret Klessig and Becky Jenson (ph). Not just to acknowledge them for their hard work on this, but that's where you direct the tough questions afterwards.
When I got here, a couple of years ago, I wondered why it had been so long since anybody had introduced a comprehensive temporary foreign worker program. Now I know why. It's a tough, tough, complex process, as the two gentlemen have already said. There's a lot to go through, and we've tried to strike the best balance that we can.
It was noted by Senator McCain the human tragedy that's occurring on the border. You can't pick up a newspaper anytime, during the summer in particular, in Arizona without reading of a death in the desert or bodies being discovered here or there. It's a terrible human tragedy that we have to address.
What we are attempting to do with this legislation is to return circularity to the migration patterns that were historically there, but have since been displaced by a settled pattern of migration.
Prior to the reforms and the beefed-up border starting in 1986, the average stay for someone coming up from the south, crossing the border in Arizona, was 2.2 years. Now that is about 6.9 years.
It's more difficult to cross the border, but I would venture to say that we haven't really stopped anybody who really wants to get here, because the lure of jobs is too great.
What we have done is ensured that those who get here stay here. And we have made it far more likely for them to feel the need to bring their families along, their spouses and their children, which just multiplies the tragedy in the desert at times.
So if we can have a regular legal process for individuals to come who are willing workers and to return home, it will certainly better that situation.
Also, I just want to echo what has been said by both Senator McCain and Congressman Kolbe about this not being an amnesty, but rather it is a way to recognize that those who are here illegally, if that is their only crime, having crossed the border, that they are recognized and that they are regularized, but that they are not given a position that they aren't allowed to leapfrog in line over those who are going through the legal, orderly process in their home country. And I think this legislation strikes a pretty good balance in that regard.
So with that, I guess we go to questions.
Let's open it up for questions. Really, Jeff, you're the expert here.
Seriously, I think we have some information here that gives a pretty good summary of the legislation here, and which I think all the reporters have here. But we'll be happy to try to answer questions. As I say, we have been working on this for a long time, but we are not experts in all the details of this. We may be calling on our staffs to help us out here.
Can you give an assessment of the prospects are in the House and in the Senate?
Well, I just say this is -- just the length of time it took us to get this point of introduction indicates how difficult immigration legislation is, I think, in either the House or the Senate. It's very complex, and you have people that are on both sides. It's very hard to find the middle ground, as we have found in trying to draft this legislation.
We hope that as we gather, like a snowball going downhill, that will gather some more snow that gathers to it, and we will pick up more supporters. And I believe that we will.
This legislation is not going to satisfy everybody. In fact, it probably satisfies no one. There are provisions in here, a few months ago, I never would have dreamed that I would have supported here. But I have come to recognize that if we want a piece of legislation, we have to make compromises.
That, in my view, is the question that people have to ask: Do they want to make a political statement, or do they want legislation enacted into law?
If they want legislation they're going to have to make significant compromises and get off the positions that they've held to so strongly. And I would say that's true on both sides.
If they don't, they can stick to their positions and perhaps we will not see any legislation enacted, which leaves us exactly where we are today with the kinds of terrible tragedies that Senator McCain described.
But I would say that's what's going to have to happen if we're going to get the legislation -- John.
I would just add a couple of points. One is that 9/11, obviously, changed the equation in respect to border security. Our border is not secure. So therefore we cannot assure the American people that they are free from acts of terror if our border is not secure.
We're not going to have a secure border as long as there's this kind of attraction of jobs into the United States of America. Our border between Arizona and Mexico is long, it's desolate and it cannot be fully protected 24 hours a day.
The second issue is that, from a political reality, is there's a growing influence of Hispanic voters and Hispanic representation in the United States of America at all levels. And I believe that in a very positive fashion that influence can be meaningfully felt here in the legislative process because of the deep concern over both the humanitarian aspects of it, as well as labor protections, as well as citizenship is concerned.
So I'm optimistic, but I do believe that it's going to take a lot of time.
Senator and Congressmen, your bill addresses people who entered the United States illegally. And what would happen to people who enter legally but overstay their visas, which is a fair amount of people who would fall under the category of undocumented?
And the second question is, do you think that the $1,500 fee or penalty would be maybe a hindrance to people who want to join in this program?
Let me take the second one first, the $1,500 fee. No. Right now the going rate for a coyote or smuggler is about $1,500 to $1,600.
So people are willing to pay that and then risk getting caught and are dying in the desert. If they're willing to do that, I would believe that they are willing to actually pay fees, which we need to actually administer the program. It's not just to try to get bilk people when they come here. It's, one, to make sure that people are serious about coming here to work, and then, two, to free up funds to administer the program.
With regard to those who are here illegally and overstayed, there's already a process that occurs that is outside of this legislation that (inaudible) understanding it as well.
There is a process for those who are here legally.
It depends on what kind of visa they came under. Are they here under a tourist visa and then they overstayed and then they get a job, which of course a tourist visa doesn't permit? Well, they're in an illegal status at that point. I believe they'd be in the same category as anybody who just comes into the country by sneaking across the border. They would then be in an illegal status at this point. So they would be in that category that would qualify for the H4B visa.
But there's also a provision for those people who have overstayed their visa to regularize their status in a different way.
In addition to that, we would hope that a proposal like this, where there's a program that they could become temporary workers, such as we're proposing, would dramatically reduce the number of people who come here and overstay their visas. We think that this program would have a very positive effect on reducing that category of people.
The fact that the White House has not (OFF-MIKE) on whether you will need support for these kind of initiative. Do you think that (OFF-MIKE) make more difficult the effort?
The president, as governor of Texas, understands this issue as well as anyone in America. He has stated many, many times his commitment to resolving this issue in a humanitarian fashion.
Obviously, the events of September 11 were overwhelming in many respects. But I would also point out that he has an excellent relationship with President Fox, who also places this issue as of the highest priority.
So we're hopeful that the administration would also be involved in this.
Senator McCain, could you tell us when are you planning on entering (inaudible) in the Senate?
Congressman Flake, you said that the process of compromise in order to get together a piece of legislation like that, and yet I only see three of you up here, and not even a bipartisan piece of legislation. I'm not criticizing your effort, but I'm just saying as a political reality, it took that much compromise just to get the three of you; how are you going to get it passed?
Well, I should note that the compromise wasn't necessarily to get the three of us on board. But we've worked with a number of Democrats to get to this point. We felt the need to get the process started now. We've been working on this for months and months and months.
We fully anticipate that we will have bipartisan support moving ahead. I mean, we could have introduced a piece of legislation that would have simply satisfied voices, I guess, from the right. We chose not to do that. We chose to come with what we consider to be potentially a very bipartisan piece of legislation that it will have a broad array of support.
Do you have any comments on that?
As this process moves forward, we will have other people standing here with us. We had pretty much made the commitment to get it introduced before the August break. And so, today's the last day to do that. But I believe we will have others with us.
There are people in organizations who are 95 percent of the way with us, and they're demanding a 5 percent. A lot of those people in organizations have their own constituencies as well. We think this is the beginning of a process, and one that has to begin with the introduction of legislation. And we look forward to input from all who are interested.
I'm wondering, you know, the cloud of September 11...
Can I mention one other thing? Ten years ago, if you'd have walked down the street in any city in Arizona and asked what's your top five priorities, immigration would not have been one of them. Now if you walk down the street of any city in the Southwest, they'll tell you immigration is one of their top priorities because it affects our ability to provide health care, the human tragedy of people dying in the desert, the strain that it puts on all of our social services.
The threats of security, failure to secure our border and all of the associated issues with the lack of border security.
Congressman Kolbe and I were down on the border with Asa Hutchinson, a man who is a steward of the Buena Vista Wildlife Preserve for 18 years, said, I've been your steward here for 18 years. Your wildlife preserve is being destroyed.
So the impacts have grown to such a large degree that it has the attention that it did not a short time ago.
The cloud of September 11 seems to hang over the country, as well as Congress. And I hate to kind of berate the same issue, are you saying with this bill that we're far enough removed from that to consider...
We're saying that if you want to secure our borders you have to resolve the issue of illegal immigration, because our borders are not secure. And September 11 has made this issue far more compelling than it was prior to September 11.
That's exactly the right point. Unless you have the relief valve of some type on the border, unless you force many of those who are coming -- and 99 percent of those who are coming are coming simply as willing workers, wanting to make a better life for themselves and their families -- if you don't provide a legal means for them to come in a legal framework, then you're casting your resources far too broadly. And we need to focus our resources where we need them on the border, and this will allow us to do that. So I completely agree with that: Because of September 11, that's all the more reason to move ahead now.
The only thing I would add to that -- and I agree completely with what was said by both of them -- the only thing I would add is that I think this administration is coming back to the view that now is the time to begin talking about this. We certainly talked to the White House about it. I'm not telling you they're endorsing our legislation, but I think they are happy to have members of Congress and proposals like this bubbling up from Congress. And I think they are very happy to see this debate beginning nationally, and Congress is a good place to begin it.
(OFF-MIKE) statements reported that the beginning of the debate is going to take a very long time. What (OFF-MIKE) I mean would there be passing in one or both bodies of the House, Senate, or, you know (OFF-MIKE)
I think part of that, obviously, depends on, to some degree, White House involvement.
But I would fully anticipate that, at our request, there would hearings within the appropriate committees to begin with.
Then, of course, it depends on how many organizations and groups come together and support at least the outlines of this proposal.
And as I said at the beginning of my statement, I've already numerous objections from various groups on both sides of the issue. That's interesting to me, because I have not seen any proposal coming from them that addresses the issue in its entirety.
And maybe as I said, they're so far from the desert of Arizona that they're not too concerned or don't feel the urgency that we do when today, probably, some innocent person is dying in the desert only seeking what we all seek: a better life.
Thank you very much.