The vast majority of Americans agree that our immigration system is broken. As Congress considers comprehensive immigration reform, we must keep in mind the lessons of previous reform attempts. It is estimated that there are currently 11-13 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. The most recent report from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shows that in 2009, approximately 613,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended in the U.S. While this number represents a 22% decrease compared to 2008, the sheer size of this number raises major concerns about the security at our southern border. Illegal immigration, which is a direct result of our flawed immigration and border security system, is an affront to the rule of law and an unacceptable security risk for all Americans.
Immigration Legislation Update
During the 111th Congress, the House considered H.R. 5281, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act of 2010. Under current federal law, states are not allowed to provide illegal and unauthorized aliens with postsecondary education benefits. H.R. 5281 would amend the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 to permit states to determine state residency for higher education purposes. Additionally, it would allow undocumented students who entered the United States as children to remain in the United States.
Many have promoted the DREAM Act as an alternative to comprehensive reform, and while I understand points that DREAM Act supporters have raised, I believe this legislation attempts to treat a symptom - rather than the root cause - of our current problems. We must first secure the border and stem the flow of illegal immigration, which is an affront to the rule of law and an unacceptable security risk for all Americans. Only then can we work to increase legal immigration through an enforceable guest worker program and by developing a more secure employee verification system. I believe it would be a serious mistake to pursue piecemeal reforms like the DREAM Act without first putting in place these fundamental components of immigration reform. Despite my opposition, the House passed H.R. 5281 on December 8, 2010, by a vote of 216-198.
Last August, Congress passed H.R. 5875, the Emergency Border Security Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2010, legislation that provides $600 million for measures such as additional border security agents, unmanned aerial drones, and fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. While I supported this legislation, I believe it is inadequate in addressing the serious problems with illegal immigration facing our nation, and I am hopeful that Congress will take immediate steps to stem the flow of illegal immigration.
On March 19, 2010, Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsay Graham introduced a bipartisan framework to help guide immigration reform in the 111th Congress. Their framework consists of four pillars: requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement; creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here. Although this framework did not advance in the Senate, I have some strong concerns with some of these provisions looking ahead.
In fact, it was these specific details that derailed previous attempts at comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. There was much concern, for example, that the legislation preferred by the Senate provided amnesty for illegal immigrants. I shared this concern. However, previous legislation also contained good elements, such as strong border security provisions and new tools to prevent employers from hiring illegal workers. These initiatives would have helped deter illegal immigration and encouraged immigration through legal channels.
I believe new legislation should require illegal immigrants seeking a green card or citizenship to leave the United States and reapply in their home country. After illegal immigrants have reapplied, their petition would be placed at the "back of the line," behind all other legal immigrants' petitions. Proposals like the "Z visa," which would have allowed an illegal immigrant to stay in America indefinitely through continual renewals, are not an effective way of dealing with the problem. They serve the same purpose as acquiring a green card, without having to leave the country or waiting at the end of the line. In my opinion, this approach amounts to amnesty.
I believe we need to find solutions that preserve the rule of law and do not reward illegal behavior. As Congress weighs new proposals to addressing the controversial issue, I will continue advocating for enforceable, fair and comprehensive approaches to immigration reform.
While we work on illegal immigration, we must also focus on fixing legal immigration policy. This would include expanding access to visas for seasonal and temporary labor. Wisconsin has relied on seasonal labor for agriculture and other industries. Due to a lack of seasonal H-2B visas, some Wisconsin businesses face annual labor shortfalls. Allowing for a streamlined, safe, and efficient visa process will provide businesses with needed workers and relieve pressure on the borders.
Protecting the Border and Enforcing Immigration Laws
Mexico is currently in the midst of an extremely violent drug war. In 2010 alone, there were over 15,000 violent drug-related murders. Much of the violence occurring in Mexico takes place along the U.S.-Mexican border, where vast sums of money can be made by smuggling drugs into the U.S. Due to the resources of powerful Mexican drug cartels, the Mexican government is facing a serious challenge for control of the country. Should the Mexican government be co-opted or even defeated by these thugs, it will become a failed state. The spillover effects of a failed state along our southern border would pose severe national security risks to the United States, and we must take action to protect our border from this threat.
I strongly support America's control of its borders and ports by requiring additional barriers and fencing. Previously, I have supported legislation that included more than 700 miles of two-layered reinforced fencing along the Southwest border and mandated that the DHS achieve and maintain control over the border through a "virtual fence." This virtual fence consists of cameras, ground sensors, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The legislation also mandated that DHS assess threats on the northern border with Canada. While the Obama Administration's Fiscal Year 2011 budget request underfunds the virtual fence construction program, I will work with my colleagues to ensure efforts to secure our southern borders are given full priority.
Every nation has the right to control entry and exit across its border. Porous borders leave us susceptible to the illegal crossing of terrorists, drug lords, and gang members, placing our homeland security in serious jeopardy. Because of the importance of this issue, I will continue working with my colleagues to strengthen efforts to secure our southern border. I hope Congress will make border security a top priority, and I will continue working toward more effective enforcement of our nation's borders.
An important aspect to creating a streamlined, safe and efficient visa process is to allow employers to easily and accurately verify an employee's legal status in a timely matter. To accomplish this goal, I believe that there are several principles to keep in mind. First and foremost, an employee's information must be safe from identity theft. Next, any system must be accurate and secure. A verification tool that is easily fabricated does nothing to address the problem of employers unintentionally hiring illegal aliens and undermines confidence in the verification system. Last, a verification tool must be immediate. As we saw last summer with traveler's difficulties with their passports, delaying the process of document verification is a source of great disruption and difficulty for ordinary Americans. We must ensure that verification occurs immediately, and that employees are able to work and receive their paychecks.
To this end, I introduced H.R. 2028 in the 111th Congress, the New Employee Verification Act, as an important way forward in solving this problem. Specifically, H.R.2028:
* Strengthens enforcement through enhanced employer penalties;
* Provides a superior, user-friendly employment verification system by replacing the current paperbased, error-prone I-9 work status verification process with a paperless, reliable Electronic Employment Verification System (EEVS);
* Avoids a "big brother" law enforcement agency building new databases on law abiding citizens;
* Creates an alternate, voluntary Secure Electronic Employment Verification System (SEEVS) to verify employees' identity and work eligibility and to "lock" that identity once verified;
* Ensures each employee's identity is safeguarded through the use of a biometric identifier (such as a thumbprint) should they participate in SEEVS. Employees would then present their identifier to their employer to confirm their identity and work authorization;
* Prevents wages earned through future unauthorized work from being used to determine benefits; and
* Serves as an alternative to a national ID card
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it is clear that our immigration system is not working. People who are attempting to come to the country legally find that it takes years to process citizenship applications and requires endless paperwork and other requirements. In order to discourage illegal immigration, I believe it is important that we work toward improving our immigration system so needed workers and eligible people are processed in a timely manner. At the same time, I do not support amnesty for the 11-13 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States. Instead, we must maintain the rule of law and move toward an orderly, efficient and fair immigration system.
Immigration reform is not just an enforcement issue--it is a national security priority that deserves our utmost attention. In a post-September 11 world, it is vital that we secure our borders before we begin to address the millions of illegal immigrants in this country. However, the job does not end there. We must work expeditiously to gain control of illegal immigration and enforce our laws. It is important to promote policies that deter further illegal entry into the United States, and it is imperative to create an environment where respect for the rule of law is strong. I look forward to working with my colleagues on this important issue and welcome your feedback at any time.