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Public Statements

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act Of 2007

Floor Speech

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Location: Washington, DC


COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM ACT OF 2007 -- (Senate - May 24, 2007)

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Mr. KENNEDY. I just wonder if the Senator would yield on this point because this is extremely important. This is about American citizens too. There are individuals who go to a hospital, people who take their children to school for vaccinations, and this has the language that if an official has probable cause to believe they are undocumented, they can question that individual.

Suppose they question them before they treat them? The way I look at it and read that, this could be an American who goes in, an American citizen goes in, and for some reason, some attendant says: Well, I have reason to believe this is undocumented, let's see all of your papers, while the person is either trying to be attended to, with a serious injury, or trying to get their child immunized to protect not only that child but other children in the classroom. How in the world are they going to be able to do that without opening up a whole system of profiling in this country?

I maintain that we have very strong border security and we have very strong provisions in here in terms of employment security, to try to make sure we are going to have the right people who are going to be able to work here and we are going to know who is going to be able to come into the United States. But this here really seems to me to be endangering American citizens in a very important way. I was just wondering if the Senator might comment on that.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I thank my friend and colleague from New Jersey for his comments, both on the Coleman amendment and the Cornyn amendment.

To remind our colleagues, we intend to have votes starting at 12:15. Yesterday we had some success on a number of different amendments. We have a number here which we expect votes on through the afternoon. We will have a full morning and afternoon.

With regard to the Coleman amendment, because the American people obviously are concerned about security, we are concerned about security from terrorism. We are concerned as well about security from bioterrorism or from the dangers of nuclear weapons. We have heard those words. We have
taken action on many of them. We still have much to do. But we have in this legislation taken a number of very important steps with regard to security. It is important to understand what has been done in this legislation in terms of security and how the Coleman amendment fails to meet the test. In a number of areas, it probably endangers our security. It does so with regard to health care, education. It may even in other areas as well.

In this legislation, we are doubling the Border Patrol. We are creating a new electronic eligibility verification system, increasing penalties on noncompliant employers by a factor of 20. We are increasing detention space and requiring more detention of undocumented immigrants, pending adjudication of their cases. We are expanding the definition of aggravated felony to encompass a wider array of offenses. We are increasing the penalties related to gang violence, illegal entry, and illegal reentry. We are increasing penalties related to document and passport fraud. The list goes on. The question is, does this amendment add to our security, or does it make us more vulnerable to a public health crisis, more vulnerable to crime, terrorist attack, and less competitive?

What we are basically doing with the Coleman amendment is saying to any teacher, any doctor, any nurse, any public official, if they believe they have probable cause--and we have to understand what that means in terms of the individual, how they are going to know there is probable cause--then they can test the individual that is before them to find out whether they are undocumented, whether they are legal, or whether they are an American.

Let's take an example. Tuberculosis, which we have seen grow dramatically over the last 3 years for a number of different reasons--71 percent of those who have tuberculosis are foreign. But in order to protect American children from tuberculosis, we need to screen and protect those who have tuberculosis; otherwise, we will find the tuberculosis is going to spread.

Well, what are we going to do? What is important is that if we find out a person comes in and the family has tuberculosis and the individual says: Well, I am not sure I am going to treat you because I am not sure you are an American citizen or if you are undocumented or if your papers are right, so I am not sure we are going to treat you, and that family has tuberculosis, the child goes into a classroom with a communicable disease and infects a number of American children? This is the typical kind of challenge.

On immunization: Immunization is down in this country dramatically. What happens? We know when we do not immunize the children, they become more vulnerable to disease. Maybe these children are going to go into the public school system and are going to spread that disease. Isn't it better to make sure they are going to get the immunization? Or are we going to say to the medical professionals: Well, I think that person is undocumented. I think they may be illegal. Sure, they have papers. They look OK. But I am not sure they are OK, so therefore I am not going to treat them.

This is false security. We have tough security in the bill.

What are we going to say in the situation where we have battered women--which is taking place today in too many communities across this country? It is a reality. We might not like it, but it is a reality, and many of the people who are being battered happen to be immigrants, undocumented individuals. What are they going to do after they are getting beaten and beaten and beaten and they go on in to try to get some medical care? Oh, no. Well, you are undocumented, so we are going to report you for deportation. Report to deport. That is the Coleman amendment: Report to deport--trying, in these situations, to meet the immediate needs.

What is going to happen to the migrant, the undocumented, who sees a crime, knows the people, is prepared to make sure the gangs who are distributing drugs--they are a witness to a crime in the community and they go down to the police department and the first thing the police officer says is: Well, you look like you are undocumented. Let's see your papers, and they arrest the person, rather than solving the crime, rather than stopping the gang.

So this is, I think, false security and unnecessary. We will have a chance to address that. As we mentioned earlier, the amendment would prevent the local governments from having the flexibility to reassure fearful immigrant communities it is safe to come forward for programs that are absolutely essential to public health and safety. If the immigrant families are afraid to access the key public health interventions, such as immunization or screening for communicable disease, the public health consequences for the entire community are severe.

When the Nation is attempting to be prepared for the threat of biological terrorism or serious influenza epidemic, this is a dangerous policy. Local governments need the flexibility to keep the entire community safe.

Public health workers should not be enforcers. Public health workers should not be enforcers of immigration law. This can create a massive fear of the health care system and upset the trust of a patient-doctor relationship that many public health workers have worked to build among the immigrant community for years.

Further, social service and health care providers are unlikely to be familiar with the complex and constantly changing immigration laws, which would be needed to determine a patient's status and for which they would have to undergo extensive training.

I have listened to the Members of the Senate talk about the 1986 immigration laws like they understood it and knew what they were talking about. How in the world are we going to expect the local policeman or the local nurse or the local doctor to understand it when on the floor of the Senate they do not even understand it?

What are going to be the implications? The implications are going to be: There is going to be increased fear, increased discrimination, increased prejudice, and increased disruption--not only of people's lives but also of the public health system, the education system, and the law enforcement system.

So this amendment does not make sense. At an appropriate time, we will comment further about it.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I rise in opposition to the proposal of the Senator from North Dakota. I appreciated over the period of these days the good exchanges we have had on the issues of the labor conditions in this country, which is what this legislation is all about.

I am going to put a chart behind me that describes the circumstances of what is happening to undocumented workers and to American workers in New Bedford, MA. This is a picture of a company in New Bedford, MA. This was taken probably in the last 4 weeks. These were the undocumented workers in New Bedford. This sweatshop is replicated in city after city all over this country. One of the key issues is: Can we do something about it? We say yes, and we say our legislation makes a very important downpayment to making sure we do.

Many of these individuals--not all--are undocumented workers. This is what happened to these workers. These workers were fined for going to the bathroom; denied overtime pay; docked 15 minutes pay for every minute they were late to work; fired for talking while on the clock; forced to ration toilet paper, which typically ran out before 9 a.m. So this is the condition in sweatshops in New Bedford, MA.

These conditions exist in other parts of my State, regrettably, and other parts of this country. Why? Because we have, unfortunately, employers who are prepared to exploit the current condition of undocumented workers in this country--potentially, close to 12 1/2 million are undocumented. Because they are undocumented, employers can have them in these kinds of conditions. If they don't like it, they tell them they will be reported to the immigration service and be deported. That is what is happening today.

I yield to no one in terms of my commitment to working conditions or for fairness and decency in the workplace. That is happening today. The fact that we have those undocumented workers and they are being exploited and paid low wages has what kind of impact in terms of American workers? It depresses their wages. That should not be too hard to grasp. Those are the facts.

Now what do we try to do with this legislation? We are trying to say: Look, the time of the undocumented is over. You are safe. You will not be deported. Therefore, you have labor protections. If the employer doesn't do that, you have the right to complain, a right to file something with the Labor Department, and we are going to have a thousand labor inspectors who are going to go through the plants in the country to make sure you are protected. That doesn't exist today. It will under this legislation.

So what we are saying is that those who are coming in to work temporarily are going to be treated equally under the U.S. labor laws. Employers must provide them workers' compensation. So if something happens to them in the workplace, they will be compensated rather than thrown out on the street. Employers with histories of worker abuse cannot participate in the program. There are the penalties for employers who break the rules, which never existed before.

Now, we say: Well, you may very well be taking jobs from American workers. That is the question. What do you have to do to show that you are not going to take jobs from American workers? Well, if the employer wants to hire a guest worker, the employer must advertise extensively before applying for a temporary worker. The employer must find out if any American responds to that. If they do, they get the job. So the employer has to advertise and the employer must hire any qualified American applicant. Temporary workers are restricted in areas with high unemployment, and employers cannot undercut American wages by paying temporary workers less.

So we are saying the temporary workers are going to come in and be treated as American workers, and those who are undocumented are going to be treated as American workers. That is not the condition today. That is the condition in this legislation. How do we get there? Well, we get there with a comprehensive approach. What do you mean by a comprehensive approach? We are saying a comprehensive approach is that you are going to have border security. That is part of it. But you are also going to have the opportunity for people who are going to come in here through the front door--if you have a limited number of people coming in through the front door, and that number is down to 200,000 now, they will be able to come through the front door, and they will be able--in areas where American workers are not present, willing or able to work--to work in the American economy, with labor protections, which so many do not have today.

But we are going to have to say you need a combination of things--the security at the border. You have a guest worker program which is part of the combination. Is that it? No, no, it is not it. You have to be able to show your employer that you have the biometric card to show that you are legally in the United States. Therefore, you have rights. If that employer hires other people who do not have that card, they are subject to severe penalties. That doesn't exist today.

So when we hear all these voices about what is happening about the exploitation of workers, that happens to be true today. But those of us who have been working on this are avoiding that with the proposal we have on this particular issue.

Included in this proposal--the Senator makes a very good point, although I never thought we sunsetted the Bankruptcy Act. I wish we had. In this legislation, we have the provisions which set up and establish a commission. The commission in the legislation does this: In section 412 we say: Standing commission on immigration and labor markets. The purpose of the commission is what? To study the nonimmigrant programs and the numerical limits imposed by law on admission of nonimmigrants;

to study numerical limits imposed by law on immigrant visas, to study the limitations throughout the merit-based system, and to make recommendations to the President and the Congress with respect to these programs.

So we have included in this legislation a very important provision to review the program we have. That panel is made up of representatives of the worker community, as well as the business community to make these annual reports to Congress about how this program is working so that we will then be able to take action: Not later than 18 months after date of enactment and every year thereafter, submit a report to the President and the Congress that contains the findings, the analysis conducted under paragraph 1; make recommendations regarding adjustments of the program so as to meet the labor market needs of the United States.

What we have built into this is a proposal to constantly review this program and report back to the Congress, so if we want to make the judgment to change the numbers, the conditions, the various incentives, we have the opportunity to do so. We believe--and I think the Senator makes a valid point--that it is useful to have self-corrective opportunities. He would do it by ending the program, by finishing it, by sunsetting it. We do it by having a review by people who can make a judgment and a decision and give information to Congress so that we can do it.

There is one final point I wish to make. We have a system, as the Senator from North Dakota pointed out, where people will work here, go back to their country of origin for a period of time, come back to work, go back to their country, and come back to work. Under our proposal, they get a certain number of points under the merit system which help move them on a pathway toward a green card and toward citizenship.

I wish that merit system could be changed in a way that favored workers more extensively and provided a greater balance between low skill and high skill because the labor market demands both. If you read the reports of the Council of Economic Advisers, you find there is a need for high skill, but 8 out of the 10 critical occupations are also low skill. We have tried, during this process, to see if we couldn't find equal incentives for both.

It is a fair enough criticism to say this merit system is more skewed toward the high skilled than it is toward the low skilled, but there are still very important provisions and protections in there for low skilled, and there are additional points added in case of family associations or if you are a member of an American family.

I really do not see the need. We moved from 400,000 down to 200,000. This is a modest program at best. We have in the legislation the report that will be made available to the Congress on a variety of areas. We have been very careful to make sure that everyone who is going to participate in this program, who is going to come in legally, is going to have the protections for working families today. That doesn't exist today. This legislation does protects them. The amendment of the Senator from North Dakota would cut out those provisions with regard to the temporary worker program.

The fact is, we need some workers in this country. All of us will battle and take great pride in being the champion of the increase in the minimum wage, and I commend my friend from North Dakota for his support over the years in increasing the minimum wage. We are very hopeful that we are going to finally get that increase in the next couple of days as part of this other legislation, the supplemental. We will be out here trying to get further increases in protections for American workers.

This is a modest program. It has the self-corrective aspect to it. It is a program that ought to be tried, and it ought to be implemented.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I see the Senator from Hawaii. Could we delay the 1 minute? I ask unanimous consent we delay the 1 minute for 30 seconds.

Mr. President, I yield myself 1 minute.

I thank the Senator from Hawaii, Senator Akaka. He has brought to the Senate the fact that there are about 20,000 immediate relatives of courageous Filipino families who served with American forces in World War II. They would be entitled under the other provisions of the bill to come here to the United States. This particular proposal moves this in a more expeditious way. These are older men and women who have been members of families who served with American fighting forces in World War II. He offered this before. It was accepted unanimously. I hope the Senate will accept a very wise, humane, and decent amendment by the Senator from Hawaii.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, reserving the right to object--and I do not intend to object--my friend from Connecticut has an amendment that deals with family reunification. We have several other amendments--Senator Menendez and Senator Clinton have other amendments--dealing with family and family reunification. This is going to be a very important aspect in terms of our debate and the completion of this legislation.

It is our intention to try to consider these amendments in relationship with each other at the appropriate time. We will work with the proponents of each of these amendments. So I will not object, but I would also put in the queue, so to speak, the other--I see Senator Menendez on the Senate floor. He will probably put his in. And we would then put in, I guess, Senator Clinton's amendment as well.

That is for the general information about how we are going to proceed. But I have no objection.

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