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Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. THUNE. Mr. President, I want to speak to the underlying legislation that we are debating in the Senate today. I want to acknowledge that, like many of my colleagues in the Senate, I am a descendant of immigrants. Only one generation separates me from a grandfather who was born in Norway but came to America with his brother in hopes of making a better life. My grandfather and great-uncle, when they came through Ellis Island, their given name was not the name I have today. It was Gjelsvik, and when they got to Ellis Island the immigration officials there asked them to change their name because they thought it would be difficult to spell and pronounce for people in this country. So they picked the name of the farm near where they worked near Bergen, Norway, which was the Thune farm. So Nicolai Gjelsvik became Nick Thune, my grandfather.

When they got here they worked on the railroad, saved up enough money to buy a merchandizing store, which eventually became a hardware store, and there is to this day on the streets of Mitchell, SD, a Thune Hardware. The family is not associated with it anymore, but that is an example, like so many other cases, of people in this Chamber as well as those all across the country who came here in search of the American dream, in search of a better life for their children and grandchildren.

My grandfather raised three sons in the middle of the Great Depression. The middle son, my father Harold, became an accomplished basketball player, went on to star at the University of Minnesota, and when World War II broke out he defended his country in combat. He became a naval aviator, flew off the aircraft carrier Intrepid during World War II. When he returned to South Dakota he started raising his family in the small town of Murdo, which is where I grew up.

This country was built by immigrants like my grandfather, and our future both economically and as a continued example of freedom throughout the world will be maintained by future generations of immigrants who come here with the respect for the rule of law and hopes of starting a better life.

A lot has changed in the world since my grandfather came to the United States. We face new threats from abroad that attempt to use our porous borders to harm this Nation and to destroy our way of life. In addition to these new national security challenges, we depend on a more dynamic system of commerce, trade, transportation, and communication. Our government is also larger and now offers a broad social safety net to a growing and aging population. To maintain our system of government, while encouraging future generations of immigrants to come here, our immigration policy must provide a clear path for those who wish to come legally while enforcing the rule of law. As lawmakers, we have to look at each piece of legislation that comes to the Senate floor based on its own merits and the impacts that it will have on our Nation.

The immigration bill before the Senate has many aspects of it that I can support, but there are elements of this legislation that cause me concern. I appreciate the effort of those who have worked in drafting this bill to find a way to address the 12 million undocumented workers who are currently living in this country. However, if we are going to fix the problem, we need to do so in a way that doesn't result in the Senate having the same discussion again and again in years to come.

The solution to the problem of illegal immigration is not Congress passing new laws every few years that provide for legalization without securing our borders. That sends the wrong message to natural-born citizens and those waiting outside of our country to enter legally.

What legalization before enforcement communicates is if they want to come to America, don't play by the rules; it takes too long. Instead, find a way to sneak in and wait for the next round of amnesty.

Before we get to the point of talking about what a path to legalization might look like, as a country we first need to be at the place where we can, No. 1, confirm our borders are secure; No. 2, know when people have overstayed their visas; and, No. 3, have a system in place where employment is limited to those who have played by the rules.

Once we have these tools in place, then we can look at a path to legalization. The bill before us today is legalization first and enforcement second. That is a promise the American people have heard before.

Last week I spoke several times on an amendment that I had offered to this legislation for a border fence which, at the time, was voted down by a majority in the Senate. I would prefer if we lived in a world where a border fence was not necessary, but, unfortunately, we do not. When I introduced that amendment I was surprised to learn from some of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle that in their view it was a waste of money and unnecessary. In fact, one of my colleagues even called it a dumb fence. Yet the substitute amendment agreed to this week now calls for 700 miles of fencing along the southern border.

With this new compromise, instead of the fence being a bad idea, now all of a sudden--and I guess it is not unlike some of the evolutions that occur around here--it is a good idea. I appreciate that some of my colleagues appreciate that good fencing is a key component of border security.

I would like to make clear that this 700 miles of fencing is not a trigger that is a precursor to legalization. The amendment agreed to in the Senate is still legalization first and the promise of border security down the road.

What the amendment I offered called for was 350 miles of fence to be completed prior to RPI status being granted. That would have meant border security first, then legalization. Additionally, I had proposed a double-layered fence to prohibit pedestrian traffic, which is different than the single-layered fence in the current legislation.

It would be insincere to claim we want to discourage illegal immigration and yet have a border that anyone can walk across, in some places without even knowing that a border has been crossed. No border fence will ever be 100 percent effective, we know that. But a physical barrier along with increased use of technology will stem the flow of pedestrian traffic. On the few sections of our border where a double-layered fence is already in place, this is verifiably the case.

Another provision being touted as part of the compromise version of this legislation is the inclusion of 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents to secure our southern border. Prior to this compromise, our colleague from Texas Senator Cornyn was criticized for proposing 10,000 new agents. I would hear people coming down on the floor saying: We can't have that. How are we going to pay for it? We don't have the money to pay for this in the bill.

Now the increase of 20,000--double the number proposed by the Senator from Texas--is being defended and even celebrated by my colleagues who were criticizing the increase only a week ago. I am still not sure how these additional Border Patrol agents will be paid for, nor am I sure how Customs and Border Patrol will be able to double in size in a short period of time.

I want to point out that those who are proposing this--and, again, when this was originally proposed, the underlying bill had about $8.3 billion in it for infrastructure and other things that were called for in the bill. But adding 20,000 Border Patrol agents now, with all the other spending in the bill, has driven the cost of this up from about $8.3 billion, which was going to be paid for in the form of fees, to now about $50 billion in costs. The argument is, that is OK because it is going to be paid for. The CBO has said this is going to generate a surplus over the next 20 years.

How is that surplus? How did they come up with that estimate? Of course, first of all, it is a payroll tax number. They are assuming that people who come here are going to start paying payroll taxes into the Social Security trust fund and into the Medicare trust fund--all probably fair assumptions. The only thing about that is when those payroll taxes come into those trust funds, at some point their assumption is they are going to be paid out in the form of benefits. So they took payroll tax surpluses and counted those as the way in which they would pay for the spending in the bill.

However, if we actually look at what the CBO said, if we take out those Social Security and Medicare trust fund surpluses, the general fund--or I guess you would say excluding the FICA payroll tax surpluses amount on this--is a $70 billion deficit. If you back out Medicare, it is only a $14 billion on-budget deficit, but it is still a deficit under the bill.

To suggest this is all going to be paid for by savings that are going to occur because of additional payroll taxes misses the point that those are payroll taxes that go into those trust funds on the assumption they are going to pay benefits at some point in the future. These are temporary savings; these are not savings we can count. In fact, when we do the on-budget analysis, we come up, again, with a deficit of $14 billion. If we take out the Medicare surplus, payroll tax surplus, we end up with a $70 billion deficit.

While I appreciate, again, the work of my colleagues to improve the bill, the final product is still legalization first and promises of border security down the road. The drafters of the legislation could point to many specifics that they hope to see in place, but these promises of additional fencing, E-Verify, electronic entry-exit, and more Border Patrol agents could be years away--if they ever happen at all. There are virtually no border security or interior enforcement border security measures in place prior to the initial legalization of 12 million undocumented workers.

I would like to see a border security package that brings real border security prior to legalization. Unfortunately, this bill is not it.

We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. It is important that these laws are respected and enforced in accordance with the Constitution and with respect to our immigrant heritage. We must have an immigration system that rewards those who play by the rules and come to the United States through legal means. In considering changes to our laws, we need to promote and reward lawful behavior rather than providing incentives that would encourage even more illegal immigration.

In 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act offering amnesty to roughly 3 million people. Today the population of illegal immigrants in the United States is estimated to be around 12 million.

Did the 1986 amnesty legislation solve the problem? No, it did not. Yet today here we are again proposing a very similar package which repeats the same mistakes made in the past. Lawful immigration makes our communities, our economy and our country stronger. Our current immigration system needs to be fixed in a manner that continues America's great heritage as a nation of immigrants. Unfortunately, as this bill currently stands it will not solve the problem. Unless we see changes that emphasize border security and the rule of law before legalization, I will not be able to support this bill.

And that is not because I oppose immigration reform. It is because this is not a piece of legislation that will help our country in the long run. This legislation will provide instant legalization, leaving in place many of the same problems which led to the situation, while exacerbating other problems.

I filed an amendment that would take many of the triggers being touted as part of this latest substitute amendment and make them prelegalization. If this amendment were to be accepted, the bill would become enforcement first and legalization later. We may not get to the point in the Senate where that type of change is going to be considered.

As we wind up this debate and move to the finish line in terms of final passage, it sounds as though additional amendments are probably unlikely to be considered, which is unfortunate. We have a lot of colleagues, as was talked about earlier, who have lots of good ideas that would improve and strengthen this bill. We will not have an opportunity to debate or vote on those amendments.

I am hopeful that as this bill moves out of the Senate sometime tomorrow and gets to the House of Representatives it will be strengthened in ways I can support. It is time we keep our promises to the American people by securing our borders as we seek to reform our immigration system. I hope before this is all said and done and this process reaches the final finish line, which would be the President's desk, it has the right types of enforcement that put border security first and addresses what I think are the broken promises that have been made to the American people too many times in the past.

The American people need to be assured once and for all that we are serious about the issue of enforcement and the issue of border security, and that the past promises and assurances which have been given in the past are not all empty rhetoric and hollow talk and mean something. We can do that, but unfortunately this bill fails to get the job done.

I yield the floor.

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