COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM ACT OF 2007 -- (Senate - June 05, 2007)
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, this is the seventh day that we have been on this legislation. We voted on 17 amendments. There are 13 others pending to the bill. We will be voting on those very soon.
Over the past week, as the Senate has been in recess for Memorial Day, we witnessed a healthy debate across the country as Americans across the political spectrum have expressed their views on this legislation. Some support our legislation, others oppose it. With all of the editorials and newspaper articles and phone calls from the constituents, one theme occurs loud and strong: Americans know our immigration system is broken and they want us to fix it. This week we have a chance to meet that challenge for the good of the Nation.
We have a bipartisan bill before us. It has the support of the President. I believe when we complete the debate in the Senate we will adopt it. It enforces our borders; it cracks down in the workplace by going after employers who hire illegal workers; it brings the 12 million families who are here out of the shadows; it speeds up the reunion of families waiting legally in line who otherwise may never make it here; it sets up an immigration for the future that continues to reunite families, while stressing our Nation's economic needs. That is our program. It is strong, practical, and it is fair.
I know the Senator from Illinois is looking to address the Senate. First, I want to speak briefly on the Allard amendment.
The Allard amendment seeks to strike a blow at one of the central pillars of comprehensive immigration reform, which is the earned legalization program for undocumented people who are working and contributing in the United States. Virtually every demographic snapshot of the American public supports a practical solution for bringing the undocumented population into the light of day. The tough and practical solution contained in the bill requires undocumented workers to pay hefty fines and penalties, undergo background checks, clear up back taxes, learn English, continue working for a period of years in a probationary status, and go to the back of the line. Only after 8 years, after getting right with the law and proving their commitment to becoming Americans, are these workers provided an opportunity at legal permanent residence.
The Allard amendment seeks to nullify that shot at the American dream. It does so by eliminating the separate point schedule included in the bill for Z visa holders and the agricultural job applicants. The point schedule for Z visa holders and AgJOB applicants is designed to determine when they can apply for permanent residence, not whether they can apply. Eligibility to apply for permanent residence is earned by complying with tough requirements. I just mentioned them--paying fines, working hard, learning English, going to the back of the current line, and reentering the country legally.
The intent of the Allard amendment is to require undocumented immigrants to compete with other future intending immigrants under the new merit-based system. There are two different merit systems, one for the temporary and one for agriculture. The amendment of the Senator from Colorado eliminates the one designed for agricultural workers. But given the merit-based system and the strong preference for the highly educated, this amendment is an attempt to keep the undocumented workers from ever obtaining permanent residence.
The educational profile of the undocumented workforce is such that these workers will never, ever be able to compete in a meaningful way for the pool of merit-based green cards. As such, if it were to pass, the amendment would create a permanent underclass of lower skilled workers living here in legal limbo indefinitely without the rights or opportunities afforded to legal permanent residents.
Similar situations are played out in other countries, resulting in highly problematic, even disastrous consequences. That is not the American way. I hope people will vote no on the amendment.
Mr. President, the aspect of this legislation that deals with the agricultural workers is called the AgJOBS bill. Senators CRAIG and FEINSTEIN are two of the principal sponsors. I have been a long-time sponsor. We are talking about agribusiness primarily in California but also in other parts of the Nation. We are talking about an agreement that was worked out between the farm workers and the agribusiness. These are two groups of people who have been at each other's throats for years. I was here when we abolished the Bracero Program, basically the exploitation of workers in the United States. It was a shame and a stain on the American workforce ethic. Then we had, over a long period of time, with the leadership of Cesar Chavez, an attempt to get justice for probably about 900,000 agricultural workers, who do some of the toughest work that is done in this country. No question, half of them are undocumented--probably 600,000 or 700,000 is the best estimate we have. They have been able to work out an agreement between agribusiness and these farm workers, which we basically included in this bill.
What we were saying, basically, under the earlier provisions is that they would be able to gain the opportunity for getting a green card in 5 years. Under this legislation, it is 8 years they have to wait. They have to demonstrate that they have worked hard in the agricultural sector. They have to demonstrate that they paid their taxes and that they are attempting to learn English, and they have to meet all of the other requirements. At the end of that time, this legislation says to those people who have been a part of our system that they will have some opportunity to get a good deal of credit for working in agriculture in America.
The amendment of the Senator from Colorado strikes that provision. So these individuals who will be competing with the other provisions that have been put into this legislation for the more skilled--there are provisions in there for lower skilled, but it is basically for the higher skills. This undermines the core part of this kind of agreement that was made. There are a number of provisions in this legislation we have spelled out. There is border security and the local law enforcement, which are important; and there is AgJOBS, the DREAM Act, which the Senator from Illinois has fought for and made sure was important. There are other very important features in this legislation.
What we would basically do with the Allard amendment is say we are going to change the mix, change the system. We have worked out a system saying agricultural workers are important. They have been able to work out their agreement. There were 67 Members of the Senate who signed on, Republicans and Democrats. We basically incorporated that, although we have extended the time for those workers. The effect of the Allard amendment, as I read it, is that we are saying that is not an agreement that we are going to continue to be committed to. We are going to say those undocumented workers are going to have to compete with those who are more highly skilled.
This legislation is a balance between the AgJOBS, the DREAM Act, and the fact that we are going to permit those 12 1/2 million people who are undocumented now to live here without fear of deportation and continue their jobs and give them, if they meet these other requirements after 8 years, in the next 5 years the possibility of getting a green card, and 5 years later be able to get citizenship with a long time in between, with heavy fines. The Allard amendment would undermine this understanding and agreement in a way that will disadvantage in a significant way the agricultural workers and other low-skilled individuals in this whole process.
I think in that sense, as the Senator from Pennsylvania pointed out, it would be unwise and unfair from a policy point of view.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a letter from the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform saying:
We write to urge your opposition to the Allard amendment .....
There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD
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Mr. KENNEDY. If the Chair will notify me when I have 3 1/2 minutes, I would appreciate it.
Mr. President, I support the amendment offered by my colleague from Illinois. I think it makes a needed change in the legislation, one that will help provide additional protection for American workers, and I thank him for calling the issue to our attention.
The amendment is very simple. It would require every employer who wants to bring guest workers into the country to advertise for and recruit American workers first. This is a general principle that has been agreed to, certainly by me and my colleagues, and one that I am sure most Members of the Senate would support.
Senator Durbin's language ensures this principle is implemented fairly and effectively with respect to all employers who are looking for more workers. Specifically, it eliminates an exception in those areas where the Department of Labor has determined there is a shortage of U.S. workers in the occupation and area of intended employment.
The shortage occupation idea relies on an exception in existing law which applies to green cards but not in the temporary worker context. So I agree with Senator Durbin that in the context of ensuring that temporary workers do not unfairly compete with Americans, we do need an exception to this rule. This legislation is based upon the principle that guest workers should only be brought in if Americans cannot be found to fill these jobs, and what better way to ensure this is the case than to require all employers advertise these positions broadly.
I know there are some Members who might say that since this exception only applies when the Department of Labor says there is a shortage of workers to fill these jobs, that we shouldn't require employers to advertise. I would argue the opposite: Because we know employers are seeking more American workers, they should easily be able to meet the requirements under these laws.
I mean, the fact remains you might have a shortage in a particular area or region designated by the Department of Labor, but there may be hospitals in those areas that have more than they need; with other hospitals having less. If those other health facilities are looking, they are probably investing in trying to find additional workers and are probably advertising in any event. This makes sure they are going to give the first opportunity--and there are other requirements in the legislation that give the first opportunity to Americans to be protected.
It doesn't seem to me this would be onerous or more costly. It may be, for example, that elsewhere in the country there are Americans who are willing to fill these jobs. Maybe there are groups of Americans who have traditionally been overlooked or discriminated against who will want to know of these opportunities so that they can have a fair chance. For all these reasons, I support the amendment, and I urge my colleagues to do so as well. I think it makes a good deal of sense, and I would hope that it would be accepted.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I thank the Senator for his graciousness in yielding a minute and a half.
I am opposed to the Allard amendment. We have in this legislation very important commitments to, one, the AgJOB workers, and we have also said for the 12 million: If you pay the fines, you go to the back of the line, you work hard, you demonstrate you are going to be good citizens for the 8 years until all of the line is cleared up, and we have a way for dealing with these individuals to permit them at least to get on the path for a green card and eventually citizenship.
The Allard amendment changes all of that framework. Under the Allard amendment, we were basically saying to those who are working in agriculture, because as his amendment shows, they get a big chunk of points on this kind of thing, that that would be eliminated, and that agricultural worker who has been playing by the rules, who is a part of the AgJOB's bill, will lose out in any kind of competition in terms of green cards and the opportunity to move on into citizenship, because the other one will have the skills, will have the points, and those agriculture workers and the other lower skilled workers will not have the opportunity to do so. It will change the framework of the bill in a very important way. I know he is looking for equity in terms of all workers here to be able to start a new day. We have worked long and hard in terms of the ag workers in terms of how we are going to treat the undocumented, how we are going to treat newer workers. We have worked that out.
It seems to me that is the fairer way. We can look to the future with the new merit system, but we ought to be able to meet our commitments, which this bill does, to those who have been a part of this system and are playing by the rules, and to whom we have made a commitment.
I hope his amendment would not be accepted.
I think the time has about expired, Mr. President.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I am delighted to deal with the amendment of the Senator from Texas. We have to figure out the order. This is the side of the Republicans now. Senator Cornyn has been waiting, and waiting patiently. The Senator from Texas did mention this. We had contacted the Finance Committee, since it is dealing with Social Security, to see whether they would be able to go, and I hope they will do that and dispose of it very rapidly. The other measures are not in the Finance Committee and we would be glad to deal with those. But dealing with Social Security is the Finance Committee's jurisdiction, and they had some views on that.
I hope we might be able to do the Cornyn amendment. The leader had asked me if we could do the DeMint amendment after the Cornyn amendment. There may be one on our side dealing with health insurance which we would be prepared to do. It is fine with me. I am here and I am ready to go with these amendments, so I will make every effort to get the Finance Committee, and I will stay here with the Senator from Texas until we are able to get this disposed of this evening. I will give you that, as far as I am concerned.
Mrs. HUTCHISON. Let me say I am happy for the Finance Committee looking at it. I wish this whole bill had gone through committee so we would know exactly where we stand. If they are for it, great. If they are against it, let us debate it. But let me ask if I could have at least a unanimous consent to bring up the amendments that are filed, No. 1301 and 1302--those are the two Social Security amendments--and then lay them aside, so that at least they are here and I know they will be disposed of.
Mr. KENNEDY. Absolutely.
Mrs. HUTCHISON. My third one, the one that requires the return home, has not been offered yet but it will be germane. We are still trying to work with Senator Kennedy,
Senator Kyl, and all the Senators who are involved in this process to try to get a consensus on that return home amendment. So it has not been filed.
If I could ask unanimous consent to bring up amendments Nos. 1301 and 1302, after which I would be happy to set them aside, to make them pending before cloture.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there objection?
Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I have given assurance to the Senator from Texas, but I wish to see if we can have a short time. She will retain the right to make that request, but let us see if we can't work out the time now with the Finance Committee. Could we try that before getting consent? Because there has been some question about others who wanted to add a number of amendments on both sides, and we are trying to at least dispose of some of those that are on the list. I will give the assurance that this legislation, at least if I have anything to do with it, is not going to pass or be considered or closed out to the Senator from Texas, because, as she has pointed out, she raised these and we gave assurance she would get them. We were prepared on that Thursday evening, as we were running out of time to do the supplemental and to get the Finance Committee over.
The Senator mentioned, before the majority leader left, that she wanted to offer that, and I regret I had not gotten the Finance Committee members over here. They were marking up I think the CHIP program earlier in the day. That is my only reservation about setting aside now, because there has been objection on both sides to adding more until we start to dispose of some of the underlying amendments.
I will certainly try to get the clearance and work with the Senator and do it within the next few hours, if the Senator would withhold that and give us an opportunity to try to work through that. The Senator is quite correct that we have given her those assurances, and I intend to keep my word to the Senator.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, reserving the right, I just mentioned to the Senator from Texas that there has been an objection. I would like to go to the Cornyn amendment--we have the side-by-side--get started, debate it, and vote on it tonight. That is what I would like to do. If necessary, we will do something over here in the meantime, come back, and deal with the Senator from Texas. We are ready to go. We have a side-by-side. We can get into general descriptions about that, but why don't we get started on the Cornyn amendment.
I was asked earlier whether we would agree to debate and dispose of the DeMint amendment, and we said fine. But if we are now going to add more and more amendments on this--I agree with those who say let's get to work. Let's do the Cornyn amendment at this time. Respectfully, as I said, we were ready to deal with the DeMint amendment 10 minutes ago. Even now, if we want to debate it and vote on it and dispose of it, we are ready to go. But that isn't it, it is now to just be filed. How can we do that if we object to the Senator from Texas filing?
Why don't we go to the Cornyn amendment, I ask Senator Specter. We will be helpful and try to get the amendment of Senator DeMint up. We are not trying to close him out. We can deal with that later this evening. I am glad to do that later this evening. We are set to go. It deals with health insurance. I am familiar with the issue. I am ready to go on it. We can deal with Cornyn. In the meantime, we can go to the Finance Committee and find out what we want to do with the amendment of the Senator from Texas, and then the leader asked us to try to dispose of DeMint. We were prepared to go ahead with the Sessions amendment that deals with the ITC that the Senator from Alabama wanted earlier.
It is not our problem with this. We are ready to go. We are ready to debate and vote. I hope we can go ahead with the Cornyn amendment and the Senator will give us a little time to get this worked out about whether we are going to add and stack additional amendments up. I haven't got anything against the DeMint amendment. I saw it. I think it is a legitimate amendment.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, if I can have the attention of the Senator from South Carolina.
His amendment will maintain a minimum level of health coverage through a qualified health plan in the meaning of 223(C) of the Internal Revenue Code. Is that right?
Mr. DeMINT. Right.
Mr. KENNEDY. That is the health savings accounts?
Mr. DeMINT. Generally, high-deductible plans are accompanied by the health savings account.
Mr. KENNEDY. So if they had other kinds of health coverage at all, they still would not be--unless they have this particular coverage, the high deductible, they would not be able to make--adjust their status.
Mr. DeMINT. This is the minimum level as established by the high-deductible policies. Certainly, more comprehensive plans would fit in the context of the amendment.
Mr. KENNEDY. Is the Senator aware now that the undocumented or aliens are not eligible for any of the Medicaid proposals at the present time?
Mr. DeMINT. For the first 5 years, that is correct. But that does not mean they cannot access any of our health clinics, emergency room services, and a lot of uncompensated care can be directed at the current group of illegal immigrants in our country.
Mr. KENNEDY. Why did the Senator select just this particular health coverage rather than being able to participate in HMOs or other kinds of programs?
Mr. DeMINT. Well, we are establishing a minimum level, which the minimum would be the high-deductible policies, often accompanied by health savings accounts. This does not prevent an immigrant from having a more comprehensive plan, an HMO. But the point of the amendment is not to mandate a comprehensive plan but to establish a minimum level of coverage, which is more affordable particularly to low-waged workers.
Mr. KENNEDY. What is the estimate that the Senator has for this coverage? What is the estimate that they would have to pay out for this coverage?
Mr. DeMINT. The average of high-deductible plans is $116 a month. I will just say as an aside, I just bought a high-deductible plan for my 22-year-old daughter at $65 a month. This, obviously, leaves some to be paid by the workers themselves. But it avoids the high-risk cost of a worker who may have complicated, very expensive problems, for that whole bill to land on a hospital, which often happens.
Mr. KENNEDY. If there are preexisting conditions--how does this amendment affect preexisting conditions?
Mr. DeMINT. Well, we do not specify. It may be something we want to cover in an additional amendment. But many States, as you know, now have high-risk pools which are available to all workers in the State regardless of immigration status.
This certainly may not cover every possible problem. But if we are going to issue Z visas, I think the point is that they become an asset to our economic environment in this country, and certainly if they are uninsurable that may suggest that they are not a viable worker as well.
Mr. KENNEDY. Well, we have 47 million Americans who don't have coverage at the present time. But you want to insist that anyone, these undocumented are going to be mandated individual coverage in order to be able to adjust their status?
Mr. DeMINT. Obviously, the uninsured are a problem, and many of us are working on ways to solve that. It is one thing to ask American taxpayers to help take care of their fellow citizens. It is another thing to ask Americans to help assist those from all over the world. Certainly, our hearts go out to anyone with health problems, but we cannot ask the American taxpayer to subsidize low-wage workers for employers who are using them in this country.
Mr. KENNEDY. Of course, CBO studies which have been released in the last few days show that immigrant workers contribute much more in terms of taxes than they use in terms of services by about $24 billion over the estimate of the length of this plan.
Mr. DeMINT. There is obviously a lot of research that refutes that. The Heritage Foundation has come out with quite an extensive study that suggests the low-wage workers, undereducated immigrants in this country today, cost an average of $19,000 a year more in taxes than they pay. This group, as a whole, over the next three decades will cost $2.4 trillion to the American taxpayer. So there is a lot of research that suggests that undereducated, low-skilled workers are going to be a net loss to the American taxpayer.
Mr. KENNEDY. I have heard studies quoted. Generally, around here we use Congressional Budget Office figures for actions in the State. They reach a rather dramatically different conclusion than the studies the Senator has mentioned.
Mr. DeMINT. Certainly, the Senator will agree it should not be the obligation of the American taxpayer to subsidize low-wage workers for employers. Frankly, I believe if we ask these immigrants to pay their fair share, employers are more likely to hire American workers in the first place rather than lower wage workers who are actually being subsidized by the taxpayer. This health plan is one idea to ask these immigrants and their employers to carry the fair load and not to dump the cost of health care on other workers in this country.
Mr. KENNEDY. Of course, the workers themselves have to contribute $550 as part of their cost anyway, their contribution to the State. In terms of consideration of covering any of the costs, that was sort of put into the legislation itself, in terms of the additional fees and additional fines as well, that addition to help offset any of the expenses that would be carried in the State itself.
Mr. DeMINT. I think the Senator obviously knows--and the bill language suggests--this is a small token of what the real costs are, not only for health care but education, daycare, and other services that are often used by these immigrants. Again, to ask these immigrants or their employers if they would like to assist in paying $100 or a little more a month to keep them from becoming a burden to the taxpayers is a small thing to ask for someone who is taking advantage of the opportunities in this country.
Mr. KENNEDY. It is important to get health care and health care coverage for all who do not have it. The real issue is the best way to pursue that. That is something we have to take a look at.
I see the Senator from West Virginia is here and wishes to address the Senate on an important matter about our friend and colleague from Wyoming.
I yield the floor and thank the Senator.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, to give some information to the Members, as I understand, Senator Hutchison and the members of the Finance Committee are meeting. As a point of information, the Senator from Texas, Mrs. Hutchison, and staff are meeting with the Finance Committee staff to consider those particular proposals. We have given the assurance to her that the Senate will address those issues at some time, but since it was just dealing with Social Security, although there are provisions in here that deal with Social Security, it is entirely appropriate that we ought to have the Finance Committee work on that.
The Senator from New Mexico has offered an alternative on the temporary worker program that is a serious amendment, and we could, if we are--we will have to find out what the pathway is between voting on one side and voting on the other, to be able to consider that, but that is an important alternative to what is the underlying legislation. I know there is going to be some response to that from Members very shortly.
On the amendment of Senator DeMint, he had indicated he was going to come to the floor to offer it. We were hopeful we might be able to consider that and have a vote on that later on as well.
At the present time, we are trying to work to see if we cannot find a situation where we can get two votes, one from the Democratic side and one from the Republican side, on measures that have been included on that list that have been talked about earlier, and the Members of the staffs on the Republican and Democratic side are working to see if we can't refine the list of different amendments to see what might be acceptable and then what might be germane and see if we can't refine this list. So that, I know for people outside the Senate, doesn't sound like much of an explanation about what is going on, but it is important and often produces additional motions here in the Senate. So we will have more information on this.
A very brief word on the DeMint amendment. His amendment requires a high deductible health insurance for each undocumented; otherwise, they would not be able to proceed with their earned legalization program which includes payments of the fines, demonstration of the work product, the investigations that show they have not had challenges in terms of the law, and the series of requirements that are out there. He would add to this the additional expenditures which would be necessary for coverage with a high deductible health insurance.
There are several points to mention here. First of all, in the underlying legislation, we have included a payment, some $500, that will be paid by each of the 12.5 million immigrants who are out there, many of whom will adjust their status. If they pay that $500, that is in excess of $1 billion--$1 billion that will be paid to those high-impact States, which is not insignificant, to help offset any of the kinds of utilization of these individuals in terms of the services within these various States. That is not insignificant.
Secondly, all of us are hopeful of trying to get universal coverage for people in this country, but we know we have 47 million who don't, and the ones who don't, it isn't that they don't want to have health insurance, it is because they cannot afford it. When you look at these individuals whom we are talking about, the undocumented and their income, we are talking about individuals who are earning $8,000, $9,000, $10,000 a year. If they have the adjustment of the status, they are going to be part of the whole kind of American system, hopefully, and meeting the other kinds of requirements, and therefore their enhanced opportunities are going to be there so they will be able to afford health care in the future. But making the requirement now will only state to those individuals to keep them in the shadows. It is one more barrier that is going to prohibit them from being involved.
A final point--and I ask unanimous consent to have this material printed in the record--the utilization of these health care facilities as we have seen in the most recent study, particularly in the State of Texas, which shows that, by and large, these are individuals who are younger, have used these health emergency centers very rarely. We have the studies that have been done, particularly the most recent one in Texas.
There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD
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Mr. KENNEDY. So at the appropriate time, I hope the DeMint amendment would not be accepted. We might have more time to consider it, if the Senator wants to, when we have more of our colleagues here later, prior to the disposal of it. I was sort of hoping we could see a continued movement on several of these amendments, but we are being told now we have to have this clearance from the leadership on some of these measures, but we are hopeful we will announce to our colleagues very shortly what the plan is for the rest of the evening.
We are prepared to stay here, remain here and go through to dispose of these amendments. We have made important progress in the past. We have some important amendments which are pending. I think Senator Specter and I and the others who are interested in this--I see my good friend from Colorado, Senator Salazar, and others who are more than willing to have a good discussion about these amendments, and we would welcome the opportunity to have the Senate express itself with votes. That is certainly our desire. We wish to see continued progress on this extremely important legislation.
As one of those with others who has been a part of this process, we want to try. We know it is complicated and difficult. We know there are strong emotions. But I think all of us, after the period of this Memorial Day recess, understand full well the American people are expecting us to take action. They know that failure is not an alternative. They know it is complex. They know there are great emotions. There are a good many who know nothing out there--people who distort, misrepresent, misstate the legislation, and then differ with it, and that has certainly been done with regard to this legislation. We have, at least to date, had good debates and discussions on substantive matters, and the Senate has reached conclusions on a number of these matters. It is certainly our desire to continue that process to work with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to continue.
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Mr. KENNEDY. The Senator chooses to call up his amendment.
Mr. President, reserving the right to object, what we were attempting to do is, as we have been moving from one side to the other, Republican and Democrat, to have the introduction of amendments on both sides. That is what we would like to do. We have had a flurry right now of amendments. I hope we get an opportunity--I think, quite frankly, there are more amendments on that side than on this side, as a factual matter.
What they have tried to do is match amendment for amendment on both sides. That has been what they have tried to do through the day today. Whether that will be the way it will be in the future, I don't know. As I mentioned, there are more amendments on that side. So, obviously, we are going to have to deal with more. At the present time, they are trying to match one side with the other side in terms of amendments. So I hope that if we have amendments on this side, the Democrats would notify us so we can match them up and propose them together.
I necessarily have to object at the present time. I hope we will not have to object when we get our final list. To try to maintain at least that balance, which was at least the way we were attempting to proceed, I have to do it at the present time. I will do everything in my power to make sure that, having done so, his amendment will certainly be considered in a timely way so it doesn't work to his disadvantage.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I oppose the amendment of the Senator from Kentucky. The McConnell amendment would limit the ability of many American citizens to exercise the fundamental right to vote. It is nothing more than a 21st century poll tax.
The 24th amendment states that ``The right of citizens of the United States to vote ..... shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.''
This amendment would force all citizens to obtain a government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Many citizens who have voted for years don't own the government-issued photo identification needed to meet the requirement. They would have to pay for the ID or at least for the underlying documents needed to get one.
Among the persons who will be hardest hit are the elderly, minorities, and persons with disabilities. That is who this amendment is targeting.
Many seniors don't have photo ID because they don't need a driver's license. But they should still have the right to vote.
Many Americans who are blind or have other disabilities also don't have a photo ID because they don't have driver's licenses either. But they should still have the right to vote.
Some religious minorities, such as the Amish, want to vote, but their faith does not allow them to have their pictures taken. We should never require citizens to violate their religious beliefs or to pay to cast a vote.
Many African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans also lack photo ID. Under this amendment, these citizens would lose the right to vote if they don't get a government-issued photo ID.
Some citizens in this country were never issued a birth certificate, particularly African-American seniors born in the South or rural areas and Native Americans. If we pass this amendment, we turn our backs on them.
Many voters had their lives devastated by Hurricane Katrina. What about them? What about the elderly grandmother displaced by Hurricane Katrina who lost all of her possessions in the hurricane and now lives hundreds of miles from her birthplace and home? If she doesn't drive, how is she going to get the documents she needs to vote under this amendment? If she is retired or lost her job because of the storm, she may not be able to afford the documents. Separated from her family and neighbors, she may not have anyone to help her fill out the forms and get to the right government agencies to obtain the documents she needs.
This country failed the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Are we going to disenfranchise them as well?
Supporters of the amendment say, ``Don't worry. Under this amendment, States will give out free identification cards to those who can't afford them.'' That sounds good in theory, but what about in practice? Citizens will still have to deal with State and local bureaucracies to prove who they are.
Poll taxes have a dark and notorious history in this country. When we considered a poll tax ban in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, poll taxes were a tried-and-true tactic to prevent African Americans and poor whites from voting. I introduced an amendment to the 1965 act to ban poll taxes in all elections--Federal, State, and local. We had days and days of debate on the Senate floor about poll taxes. Not everyone agreed on how to fix the problem. The final amendment made clear that poll taxes infringe the right to vote and directed the Attorney General to challenge them in court.
A year later, in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the Supreme Court held that poll taxes are unconstitutional. The Court declared that ``the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned'' on the ability to pay.
We thought that poll taxes and other blatant barriers to the right to vote were vestiges of a bygone era. But today, Republican-controlled State legislatures around the country are attempting to enact photo identification laws.
Federal and State courts have already struck down State laws similar to the McConnell amendment. In Georgia, a Federal court has stopped two different attempts to impose a photo identification requirement. Judge Murphy ruled the first an unconstitutional poll tax because of the cost that hundreds of thousands of Georgians without photo identification would have to pay to obtain them.
The State's second attempt made the IDs free, just as this amendment supposedly does, but it was still struck down as unconstitutional. The court held that Georgia's interest in combating nonexistent vote fraud didn't justify the ``severe burden'' on voters without photo identification who would have to get through several layers of bureaucracy to obtain the documents required. A State court also ruled that the Georgia law violated the State constitution because it disenfranchised citizens who were otherwise qualified to vote.
A similar proposal recently was struck down in Missouri. The judge spelled out the problem loud and clear. For some, he said, the burden of a photo ID requirement may not seem great. But ``for the elderly, the poor, the undereducated, or otherwise disadvantaged, the burden can be great if not insurmountable, and it is those very people ..... who are the least equipped to bear the costs or navigate the many bureaucracies necessary to obtain the required documentation.''
Supporters of this modern-day poll tax claim it is just common sense. ``What's the big deal?'' they ask. After all, if you need a photo ID to get on a plane or rent a movie or drive a car, it is only reasonable to require such an ID to vote.
But voting is a right in this country and not simply a privilege. We need to restrict who can get on a plane or drive a car, but we should never restrict the precious right to vote. As Judge Callahan put it in the Missouri case, ``While a license to drive may be just that--a license and not a right, the right to vote is also just that--a right and not a license.''
When proponents of this amendment stand up to explain why America needs this legislation, listen carefully. During the floor debate on a similar proposal in the House, the amendment's Republican supporters strained to convince us that we have a major problem because noncitizens and others are posing as eligible voters. But they couldn't give us any evidence.
The fact is, voter fraud simply isn't a major problem. It certainly isn't a serious enough problem to justify disenfranchising Americans on a massive scale--which is exactly what this proposal would do.
Proponents of this 21st century poll tax have no evidence that it is needed because all the facts show it is not needed. Here is what the hard evidence tells us about voter impersonation in this country:
A recent article in the New York Times found that voter fraud is exceedingly rare. It found that, over a 5-year-period, the Justice Department, despite focusing its effort on prosecuting individuals for voter fraud, a top priority of Karl Rove, ``turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections'' through fraudulent voting. There have been only 86 convictions nationwide. That is less than 90 instances of anyone voting who wasn't supposed to vote in the entire country in 5 years. In addition, according to the article, many of these people, voted or registered to vote by mistake, without knowing they were not eligible.
Statewide surveys in Ohio after the 2002 and 2004 elections found only four instances of ineligible persons voting or attempting to vote--four out of over 9 million votes cast during those elections. That is a rate of 0.00004 percent.
In Georgia, where state legislators cited voting fraud as the need for a photo ID law, secretary of state Cathy Cox could recall only one case of voter fraud involving the impersonation of a registered voter during her 10 years of service.
Out of nearly 200 million votes cast since 2002, only 86 individuals nationwide have been convicted of election fraud. And many of those offenses involved conduct that would not be remedied by a photo identification requirement.
The evidence also makes very clear that this proposal would disenfranchise millions of citizens who are eligible to vote.
A University of Wisconsin study found that in Milwaukee nearly 50 percent of African-American and Latino men did not have government-issued photo identification.
According to AARP, 36 percent of voters in Georgia over the age of 75 don't have government-issued photo identification.
Georgia Secretary of State Cox found that nearly 700,000, or 1 in 7, registered voters in Georgia do not have a driver's license or State-issued non-driver's license, which this amendment would require in order to vote.
According to the Department of Transportation, 6 to 12 percent of eligible voters do not currently have the identification the amendment would require.
The American Association of People with Disabilities estimates that nearly 4 million Americans with disabilities would be disenfranchised if this proposal takes effect.
Native Americans living on tribal lands, often without street addresses and with traditions that don't permit the taking of their picture, would also be disenfranchised by this law.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 11 million U.S.-born citizens do not have a birth certificate or passport readily available to them and therefore could be disenfranchised under this amendment. The burden falls unequally on some geographic regions as well as on our most vulnerable populations:
It hurts the elderly--some 2.3 million elderly Americans lack the required documents.
It hurts rural residents, since approximately 4.5 million rural Americans lack the documents necessary to establish their citizenship.
It hurts citizens living in the South and Midwest--8.4 million residents of Southern and Midwestern States don't have the documents this amendment would require to vote.
It hurts the poor--nearly 3 million citizens making less than $25,000 a year lack a passport and birth certificate.
It hurts African Americans--2 million African Americans lack a passport and birth certificate. Many elderly African Americans have no birth certificate because they were born at home at a time when hospitals were closed to African Americans because of racial discrimination. One study estimates that a fifth of all African Americans born in 1939 and 1940 were never issued birth certificates.
Under the Bush administration we are running historic deficits and our debt is mounting. We can't afford the cost of a program designed to fight a nonexistent problem.
At a time when Americans have serious concerns about the proper functioning and integrity of voting machines, the Republican Party responds with a solution in search of a problem. They want to pass a law that threatens to disenfranchise millions of eligible voters. To those who were disenfranchised in the 2000 and 2004 elections by wrongful purges, erroneous registration lists, poll worker errors, uncounted provisional ballots, of long lines, this is our answer?
If the Senator from Kentucky is serious about election reform, we stand ready to work together. But it is cynical to take such a serious and important issue, so fundamental to democracy, and use it for partisan politics.
Last July, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act with broad bipartisan support. The reauthorization passed overwhelmingly in the House and by a unanimous vote in the Senate. Republicans and Democrats came together to tear down barriers to the ballot box.
Now some on the other side of the aisle want to erect new barriers to voting by telling Americans they need a passport to vote. If we adopt this amendment, we undermine the Voting Rights Act's important protections. This amendment would disenfranchise many of the same voters we tried to protect with that historic legislation last year.
Mr. President, that is unfair, undemocratic, and unconstitutional. I urge my colleagues to vote against this amendment.
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