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Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mrs. FEINSTEIN. Mr. President, I come to the floor today in support of S. 744, the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill before the Senate.

Through the process of negotiation and compromise, including 212 amendments that were considered during the course of the Senate Judiciary Committee markup last month and now much discussion on the Senate floor, a workable, tough--but fair--bill sits before us, ripe for us to take action on a problem that has gone unresolved for far too long.

Colleagues, this is our last, best chance to achieve immigration reform.

The bill before the Senate provides long-sought-after solutions that will help fix our broken immigration system. It takes into consideration our country's modern-day national security, economic, and labor needs, as well as our country's age-old tradition of preserving family unity and promoting humanitarian policies.

It would also bring approximately 11 million undocumented individuals now living in the United States out of the shadows and on a path where they could proudly and openly contribute to this great nation.

The first fundamental principle of the bill is that we must control our Nation's borders and protect our national security.

Before a single undocumented person in the United Staes can earn a green card, several important ``triggers'' must be met, showing that the Federal Government has effectively secured the border and is enforcing current immigration laws. These triggers include the following:

No. 1, an unprecedented increase of 20,000 new full-time Border Patrol agents stationed along the southern border.

No. 2, the full deployment of the comprehensive southern border security strategy, which requires the Department of Homeland Security to conduct surveillance of 100 percent of the southern border region.

No. 3, DHS completion of the southern border fencing strategy, which includes at least 700 miles of pedestrian fencing along the southern border.

No. 4, implementation of a mandatory employment verification system for all employers, known as E-Verify, which will prevent unauthorized workers from obtaining employment.

No. 5, implementation of an electronic exit system at air and sea ports of entry that operates by collecting machine-readable visa or passport information from passengers of air and vessel carriers.

These enforcement improvements build upon the Department of Homeland Security's substantial progress in securing and managing our borders.

Over the past several years, DHS has deployed unprecedented amounts of manpower, resources, and technology to secure the Nation's borders, and these efforts have not only led to enhanced border security but have also expedited legitimate trade and travel.

The second fundamental principle included in the bill is the creation of a path to citizenship for the 11 million individuals who are living and working in the United States without proper immigration documentation.

While some have insisted that all 11 million undocumented immigrants should be deported, such a solution is not reasonable.

A majority of these individuals and families have become integrated into the fabric of their communities, and deportation would be a severe outcome. Many work and pay taxes, but they and their families live in the shadows and face the possibility of being picked up and deported, daily.

The State of California has the largest number of undocumented immigrants, estimated to be 2.6 million people or nearly one-fourth of all unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States. These individuals have become an essential part of the California workforce. Many work in hotels, restaurants, agriculture, and the housing and construction industries.

A recent study of immigrants in California that was completed by Dr. Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda and Marshall Fitz of the Center for American Progress concluded that, ``if all unauthorized immigrants were removed from California, the state would lose $301.6 billion in economic activity, decrease total employment by 17.4%, and eliminate 3.6 million jobs.'' The study further showed that, ``if unauthorized immigrants in California were legalized, it would add 633,000 jobs to the economy, increase labor income by $26.9 billion, and increase tax revenues by $5.3 billion.''

This bill establishes a process to bring these individuals out of the shadows.

The need to provide a stable, legal, and sustainable workforce through immigration reform is critical in the agricultural sector.

According to government estimates, there are about 1.8 million people who perform hired farm work in the United States. Approximately 1.2 million of these individuals--fully two-thirds of those who help bring pistachios, almonds, wine, and other things we enjoy, to our tables--are not authorized to work here.

Some may ask, why don't farmers hire Americans to do the work? The answer is, they have tried and tried, but there are not many Americans who are willing to take a job in the fields. It is hard, stooped labor, requiring long and unpredictable hours, often in the hot Sun and high temperatures. That is why the labor shortage persists even in these challenging economic times.

The United Farm Workers initiated the ``Take Our Jobs'' campaign in which they invited citizens and legal residents to apply for jobs on farms across the country, but only seven people accepted jobs and trained for agriculture positions.

A 2012 California Farm Bureau survey found that 71 percent of the tree fruit growers and nearly 80 percent of raisin and berry growers were unable to find adequate labor to prune trees and vines or pick crops.

This problem also impacts year-round industries such as dairy. A 2012 Texas A&M study found that farms using an immigrant workforce produce more than 60 percent of the milk in our country. Without these immigrant dairy employees, economic output would decline by $22 billion and 133,000 workers would lose their jobs.

All over the Nation, growers are closing their farms because they lack a stable, legal workforce. And American farmers who remain are suffering economic losses because of the lack of immigration reform.

And when farmers suffer, there is a ripple effect felt throughout the economy--in farm equipment manufacturing, packaging, processing, transportation, marketing, lending, and insurance.

The reality is that if there are not enough farm workers to harvest the crops in the United States, we will end up relying on foreign countries to provide our food supply. This is not good for our economy or for ensuring that Americans are receiving safe and healthy foods.

Right now, the H-2A visa, or temporary agricultural guest worker visa, is the only program that is available for growers to hire foreign workers. Unfortunately, this program has not worked for the vast majority of agricultural employers.

A 2011 National Council of Agricultural Employers survey found that administrative H-2A delays prevented almost three-fourths of surveyed employers from timely receiving workers, which caused economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms in 2010.

Katie Jackson from Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa, CA, wrote me about the challenges she currently faces in navigating the H-2A visa program and identifying a sufficient number of skilled workers. She wrote that because, ``very few of the unemployed in this Nation will opt to work in agriculture, and even fewer have the necessary skills to do so,'' Jackson Family Wines turned to increased automation and use of the H-2A program. However, Ms. Jackson noted that ``the H-2A program is cumbersome and from our perspective merely provides a temporary fix.''

In previous Congresses, Senators Craig, Kennedy, and I repeatedly tried to pass bipartisan legislation to address this, known as AgJOBS, without success.

This year, I collaborated with Senators Rubio, Bennet, and Hatch to negotiate and develop a new proposal that is balanced and fair to address the ag labor crisis. I am very grateful to Senator Schumer and the other Members of the Gang of 8 that they incorporated this proposal into this bill; it is now subtitle B of Title II, the ``Agricultural Worker Program.''

All of the elements of this program were negotiated between farm worker representatives and a large coalition of grower organizations. These negotiated provisions protect both farmers who are forced to rely on foreign farm labor and the farm workers by allowing the current undocumented farm workers to continue to work in agriculture to earn a blue card and eventually a green card.

Under the bill, agricultural workers who can document U.S. agricultural employment for a minimum of 100 work days or 575 hours in the 2 years prior to date of enactment are eligible to adjust to blue card status. Blue card applicants must not have a felony or violent misdemeanor conviction and must pay a $100 fine for being in the United States without immigration status.

Agricultural workers are eligible for a green card when they pay all taxes, have no felony or violent misdemeanor convictions, and pay another fine--of $400. The worker must also document that they performed at least 5 years of agricultural employment for at least 100 work days per year during the 8-year period beginning on the date of enactment or performed at least 3 years of agricultural employment for at least 150 work days per year during the 5-year period beginning on the date of enactment.

To replace the problematic H-2A program, the bill will also address the long-term workforce needs of farmers going forward, including dairies and other year-round ag industries, by creating a streamlined system to bring in temporary guest workers through a new agricultural visa program called the W-Visa program.

This two-part new farm worker visa program provides a temporary worker two options, which are at-will employment or contract-based employment.

No. 1 at-will employees have the freedom to move from employer to employer without any contractual commitment.

No. 2 contract employees must commit to work for an employer for a fixed period of time, which can provide increased stability for both employees and employers. After fulfilling this commitment, they are then free to work for other U.S. agricultural employers.

The bill includes specific negotiated wage rates that replace the ``adverse effect wage rate'' standard that exists under the current H-2A program, which has proven to be very controversial, and which many farmers say is one of the reasons that the H-2A program is unworkable.

The number of agricultural guest workers who can enter the country in any given year is subject to a carefully negotiated cap to reflect anticipated labor market demands.

For the first 5 years, the visa program is capped at 112,333 per year. With a 3-year visa, this would result in 336,999 temporary workers who can be in the country at one time.

To ensure that a given year's visa allocation is not used up by regions of the country that harvest earlier than others, the bill requires that the visas be evenly distributed on a quarterly basis in the first year and that the USDA Secretary can modify the timing of the disbursement of visas based on prior usage patterns thereafter. Any unused visas that remain at the end of a quarter can be rolled over to the next quarter but not to the next year.

The cap may be increased if there are demonstrated labor shortages or reduced in response to a high unemployment rate of agricultural workers. After 6 years, the number of applications for guest worker visas and the number of blue card applications approved will also be considered when determining the annual caps.

This new, improved visa program will help American agriculture continue to be a driving force in our Nation's economy.

For those who are currently unauthorized to be in this country, Democrats and Republicans together created a new registered provisional immigrant--or RPI--program to provide such immigrants with lawful immigration status.

RPIs would be authorized to work in the United States and to travel abroad. Only if they meet stringent criteria may they renew their RPI status for another 6 years and ultimately adjust from RPI status to that of a lawful permanent resident--or green card holder.

Let me be clear, this is not amnesty. Amnesty is automatically giving those who broke the law a clean slate, no questions asked. This bill does not do that. Instead, the bill imposes rigorous requirements in order for each individual to attain legal status, apply for a green card, and eventually become a citizen.

The time has come for those who are already here, doing jobs across the
spectrum--such as caring for our aging population, working in restaurants and hotels, and creating successful small businesses. It is realistic for us to secure a sufficient legal workforce, while importantly protecting our U.S. workers, to meet the labor needs of this country.
This bill would also finally pave the way for DREAMers who were brought to the United States by their parents and grew up here; they consider the United States their home and want to give back.

Approximately 65,000 DREAMers graduate from our high schools each year. They are hard-working and are dedicated to their education or to serving in the Nation's military. Some are valedictorians and honor roll students; some are community leaders and have an unwavering commitment to serving the United States.

Through no fault of their own, these young individuals lack the immigration status they need to realize their full potential. This bill will provide an opportunity for these students to fulfill the American dream and it is only prudent for us to give them that chance.

While still prioritizing the American workers who are seeking jobs by establishing a strict screening requirements, this bill aims to meet the needs of businesses so that our economy can succeed not only in the fields but in medical, technological, and research labs across the country.

This bill reforms the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers by doubling and potentially tripling it depending on the country's labor needs. Ensuring that this country stays ahead of the curve in technology, it facilitates advances in science, technology, math, and engineering by stapling a green card to certain STEM graduates' passports. It creates a W visa program for low-skilled workers and encourages ideas through entrepreneurship, enabling the creation of the likes of the next eBay, Google, PayPal, and Yahoo, all which were founded by immigrants.

I want to commend the members of the Gang of Eight Senators--Schumer, McCain, Durbin, Graham, Menendez, Rubio, Bennet, and Flake,--for providing a foundation that strikes the right balance and reflects the best thinking on how to accommodate all the various concerns and interests.

I also want to recognize those who paved the path forward for them, including former Senators Kennedy, Specter, Salazar, Kyl, and Martinez. Their hard work in tackling this difficult issue has finally brought us to this crucial stage.

This is not a perfect bill, but it is a necessary bill. If we do not seize this opportunity, I fear that the chance of comprehensive reform will be gone for another generation--something I believe would be a terrible mistake for our country.

It realistically and pragmatically updates our current immigration system in a way that enhances our national security, ensures our labor needs are met in a fair way that does not compromise U.S. workers, facilitates timely family unification, and is humane. I hope you will join me in passing this bill in the Senate.

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