Immigration is a central feature of our history and our success as a country. We are a nation of immigrants - people from around the world have come here to find better lives for themselves and their families. In Colorado, immigrants came to farm, to build railroads, and to work as miners. Their contributions have had a lasting impact on our state's economy and cultural heritage.
Today, legal channels of immigration still add value to our economy and our communities. But our broken immigration system is badly in need of reform, and the devastating terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have reinforced that immigration reform is a matter of national security. We cannot afford to ignore the security of our northern and southern borders, our ports of entry, or our coastlines.
Illegal immigration also poses significant problems that undermine public confidence in government, and the rule of law. It is estimated that there are at least 12-15 million immigrants in the United States illegally, who are working and raising families. Their status, and the need for procedures to prevent more illegal immigration, must be a top policy priority for the President and Congress. Although this issue is one where emotions run high, I believe we can achieve a policy that provides sensible solutions to the system's challenges if we work in a bipartisan way and bridge - rather than deepen - the divide that characterizes public debate on immigration reform.
Border Control and National Security
Any meaningful immigration reform must strengthen border security. If we do not know who is coming into our country, we cannot fully protect the American people. As the 9/11 Commission pointed out, this means redoubling our efforts at U.S. ports of entry in order to have as much information about and control over the individuals and materials coming into the country as possible. That is why I voted to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives early in 2007.
As a member of the House, I also supported the Fiscal Year 2009 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which included funding for additional border patrol agents, improved tactical infrastructure - including 700 miles of border fence - and enhanced technological surveillance at ports of entry.
As a Senator, I supported the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided an additional $680 million for important construction funding and swift rehabilitation of critical infrastructure and technology to make Customs and Border Protection's efforts more effective. I also voted for the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010, which included $800 million dollars for border security fencing, infrastructure, and technology, and more than $5.3 billion for enforcement of immigration and customs laws, detention and removals, and investigations.
Additionally, I am a strong supporter of strengthening penalties for human trafficking and ensuring our border security agencies have the resources they need to capture these criminals. Human traffickers not only bring illegal immigrants across our border, they exploit weaknesses in our nation's security, and endanger people's lives. As a member of the House, I voted for the "Alien Smuggling and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007" to help end the practice of illegal human smuggling. By aggressively pursuing and forcefully prosecuting traffickers, I believe we can cut off a prime source of illegal immigration in this country and save lives.
Employer Accountability and Identity Verification
Immigration reform involves balancing two important policy objectives: Enforcing employment law and addressing the need for legal immigrant labor in some industries. We cannot meet these objectives if our focus is only on worksite enforcement. Employers must also be part of the solution.
I strongly believe that only those who are authorized to work in the United States should be able to do so. This is why I support the development of an employee verification system, such as E-Verify, that allows employers to verify the eligibility of their newly hired employees. Currently, Colorado is one of a handful of states that requires the use of E-Verify for employers awarded state contracts. On July 8, 2009, the Obama Administration announced that it would award federal contracts only to employers who use E-Verify, effective September 2009.
Although I support the use of E-Verify, I believe that it must be made stronger. As we develop this program and other methods of employment verification, we must be sure that they are even more reliable and effective than existing technology so that we prevent unauthorized workers from slipping through the cracks or adversely affecting Americans because of preventable system errors. The Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010, which I voted for on July 9, 2009, included the reauthorization of the E-Verify program for an additional three years.
Legal Immigrant Workers
Legal immigrant workers play an important role in key Colorado economic sectors, including the ski and tourism industries and agriculture sector. The H-1B and H-2B programs enable these employers to draw talented and hardworking people legally from other countries to help keep America competitive.
The H-1B visa program helps high-tech industries grow and attract top talent. But because there is an annual cap on the number of visas that are distributed, some companies are forced to outsource jobs to other countries in order to find workers they need. I want to keep U.S. jobs in the United States.
The H-2B visa program helps employers find temporary workers for low-skill, non-agricultural jobs. Our ski industry and tourism sectors rely heavily on this program to fill a niche market of seasonal workers.
The United States' visa programs should not adversely affect American workers. I support maintaining and exploring opportunities to strengthen safeguards in visa programs to ensure that Americans have the first opportunity to take these jobs. I also believe that we can do more to train and prepare an American workforce that can meet the domestic demand for professional jobs. Investments in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education and related programs for America's youth and workforce can go a long way in providing the skills necessary to help fill these jobs domestically. To support this effort, I have co-sponsored the STEM Education Coordination Act of 2009, which would direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy to create a committee to coordinate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education activities at all of the federal research agencies and the Department of Education in an effort to strengthen our country's high-tech workforce.