Search Form
First, enter a politician or zip code
Now, choose a category

Public Statements

Immigration Reform

Location: Washington, Dc


Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I always enjoy listening to my friend from Alabama. He has been very much involved and engaged in the discussion and debate on this issue in our Judiciary Committee. But I caution those watching this debate to examine his comments, where he said: ``Any individuals that came here illegally, this bill puts them automatically on a path for citizenship.'' That statement is categorically wrong. It does not. I will explain about the provisions of the legislation. I would not support that proposal. The members of the Judiciary Committee that supported the underlying legislation, the McCain-Kennedy legislation, don't support that proposal.

We gather here today to begin debate on our effort to correct a great historic wrong.

For decades, this country has turned a blind eye to the plight of the stranger in our midst, and looked away in indifference as undocumented immigrants have been exploited at the workplace and have been forced with their families to live in constant fear of detection and deportation.

We have ignored the tough conditions endured by the undocumented, and the harmful ripple effects undocumented employment has on some U.S. workers. For decades Congress has failed to take sensible steps to end undocumented immigration, and some of our policy choices have even contributed to the current crisis.

We first confronted this problem directly in 1952, passing a law known in the parlance of the time as the ``Wetback'' bill, which made it a crime to harbor or abet undocumented immigrants. But at the same time, over the vigorous objections of President Truman, Congress carved out the Texas Proviso--so called because it was drafted by agricultural producers from that State--which made it legal to employ undocumented immigrants. This decision protected the ``economic pull factors'' which have sustained illegal migration since that time.

In 1961 the Edward R. Murrow documentary Harvest of Shame directed the Nation's attention to the miserable conditions under which migrant farm workers toiled to bring cheap fruit and vegetables to our table. Congress responded by terminating the deeply flawed Bracero guest-worker program, and strict limits were imposed for the first time on labor migration from Mexico. I was part of that effort in the Senate to end that unacceptable and outrageously exploitive program. These changes to our immigration policy were well-intentioned, but with hindsight their result was predictable: by ending legal migration, but allowing employers to bid for immigrant labor, Congress all but guaranteed a generation of undocumented immigrants would emerge.

Since that time, economic disparity between the U.S. and its neighbors increased, globalization made travel in and out of the U.S. easier, and two whole generations of foreign workers and U.S. employers came of age in an economic system organized around illegal migration.

In truth, Congress has done little since then to confront this problem. In 1986 we passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, but IRCA's employer sanctions provisions have never been enforced. Rather than confront the structural causes of undocumented immigration, Congress has repeatedly attacked the symptoms of this disease: building more fences and placing more agents at the U.S.-Mexican border, and imposing more restrictions on immigrants' legal rights. These blunt enforcement tools have not quenched employers' thirst for immigrant workers, and they have not given families the tools to be reunited with their loved ones. Instead, enforcement-only approaches have driven immigrants farther into the desert and deeper underground.

For decades, we tolerated undocumented immigration because it seemed like a win-win exchange: employers and consumers were given access to cheap labor and low-cost goods and services; but Congress was not required to make politically difficult decisions about expanding legal low-skilled immigration.

But, of course, undocumented immigration has not been cost-free--far from it. And recent changes make continued indifference to this crisis impossible. Undocumented immigrants now live in every State in the Nation, and whole sectors of the economy--from construction, to food services, to health care, to agriculture--depend on undocumented workers to stay in business.

Labor and business alike now demand a system in which workers' rights are respected and in which workers are no longer vulnerable to deportation.

Millions of U.S. citizens now demand a system in which their husbands, wives, parents, children, and neighbors can plan for the future. And the continued health of the American economy demands a system in which all of these workers join the formal labor force, pay their taxes, and play by the rules.

United States relations with Mexico and other countries of origin have also changed, and changed dramatically. In 1965, when the foundation for our current system was put in place, Mexico was an authoritarian state and barely a top 10 United States trade partner. Now Mexico is a flourishing democracy, a partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement, and our No. 2 trade partner in the world. Over 300 million legal border crossings occur between the United States and Mexico each year, and trade across the border totals $650 million a day. Yet this relationship and our broader regional interests are jeopardized by this humanitarian crisis at the border and by the exploitation of immigrants within the United States.

President Bush is traveling to Mexico this week, and the crisis of undocumented immigration, including the enormous strain it places on our partnership with Mexico, will be at the top of the agenda.

And, of course, the 9/11 attacks remind us that undocumented immigration creates a crisis of insecurity. America spends billions of dollars tracking entries and exits at our ports of entry, but we have no idea about the identity of millions of immigrants already living among us. The vast majority of these undocumented immigrants are honest and hard-working, but our national security requires that we identify and monitor those who are not.

We all agree that the time has come for Congress to act, but how shall we do so? Fundamentally, we must choose between two alternatives.

Some would have us build higher and longer walls at the border. They would have us further restrict migrants' legal rights and make these hard-working men and women not just subject to deportation but also do time in U.S. prisons for the crime of living and working in this country. They would go much further, actually making felons of people such as Cardinal Mahoney and tens of thousands of other clergy and social workers who are offering counseling or humanitarian support to undocumented immigrants.

Yet the United States lacks the resources or the political will to actually remove all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants among us. Doing so would cost $240 billion, it would wreak havoc with our economy, and it would destroy millions of American families. Nor in a global economy do we truly have the desire or the capacity to build an impenetrable wall around ourselves.

The idea that blunt enforcement will disrupt this deeply entrenched system of undocumented immigration flies in the face of history and economics. Rather, this enforcement-only approach would simply replicate the policy failures of the past. Down this road lie further undocumented immigration, further insecurity, further economic polarization, and further exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

I must say, on the issue of the wall, all we have to do is look at our recent history. We have spent $20 billion over the last 10 years. We have a wall now that is 66 miles long. There are 1,800 more miles along the Mexican border, if we are talking about building walls. We have tripled the number of border guards, built the wall along the border, and we find the present system is not functioning or working. How many times do we have to learn that lesson, and how much more would it cost us if we go that particular route? It is a route that is unacceptable, expensive, and unworkable.

We propose an alternative approach. We propose to end this system of exploitation and to right this historical injustice.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator has used 12 minutes.

Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I yield myself 4 more minutes.

We believe that immigrants, like women and African Americans before them, have rights in this country, and the time is ripe for a new civil rights moment. We believe that a nation of immigrants rejects its history and its heritage when millions of immigrants are confined forever to second-class status and that all Americans are debased by such a two-tier system. The time has come for comprehensive immigration reform.

Our opponents believe that blunt enforcement can solve our current crisis. We believe that the culture and infrastructure of illegality can only be disrupted and our security and prosperity can only be assured through a three-pronged approach.

First, we favor smarter and tougher enforcement through greater reliance on technology, better screening at our consulates abroad, more international cooperation on migration enforcement, working with Mexico and the other countries in Central America--which our opponents never think about or have asked to or have a program to try to do--and also tracking terrorist mobility and more efficient screening at U.S. work sites.

Our national security and our immigration control efforts are both weakened when we fail to distinguish the millions of undocumented immigrants making vital contributions to our economy and the handful of extremists who would enter the United States to do us harm.

How can we seriously consider diverting our scarce resources to building a fence along the border? This is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem. A fence--muro de muerte is the alternative, and we are saying that is the kind of wall we are going to build, with all the technology we have? It is a bankrupt policy.

The focus on the border will not prevent undocumented immigration. Almost half of all undocumented immigrants enter through legal channels, and others will always find ways to go over, under, or around the wall. More importantly, a United States-Mexico border fence does nothing to help us identify and track terrorists who would almost certainly choose other strategies for entry, including the use of fraudulent or legitimate documents, or entry anywhere along an unguarded northern border or coastline.

Second, in an economy which depends on immigrant labor, we favor the creation of legal opportunities so that all American workers have the right to labor with dignity and the protection of our laws. More opportunities must be created for workers and families to obtain green cards through our permanent visa system. And the 400,000 or so undocumented immigrants now joining our workforce each year must be offered access to temporary visas and to a spot in the formal economy when employers cannot find U.S. workers to take these jobs.

Our temporary worker program differs in fundamental ways from the failed approaches of the past. We include robust wage guarantees to ensure that temporary workers will not depress the wages and working conditions of American workers, which is happening at the present time, and we back up these guarantees with strong complaint procedures and protections for whistleblowers. We believe guest workers must not be tied to a single employer but, rather, must have the right to vote with their feet by changing jobs when employers would exploit them. And we believe workers must have the right to adjust to permanent status if their situation changes and they choose to remain in the United States.

Third, immigration reform will be fundamentally incomplete without a plan for bringing the undocumented immigrants already among us out of the shadows and into legal status. Our national security requires the United States to know who resides in our
country. Our economic prosperity requires that undocumented immigrants--5 percent of all workers in the United States--join the legal economy.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator has used his additional 4 minutes. There is 13 minutes remaining.

Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I see my friend from Illinois here. I am going to take 1 1/2 more minutes, and then I will yield the floor.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, countless American families want their undocumented relatives to have the opportunity to become residents. One million immigrants rallied in communities across the country last week, and the crowds included thousands of families waving American flags and celebrating America as their adopted homeland.

No one believes in amnesty for these immigrant workers and families, but we do believe in giving them a chance to earn--earn--legal status. That is the difference. Amnesty is a pardon. We are not pardoning any undocumented immigrants. What we are basically saying is: Come out of the shadows, pay a fine, pay your taxes, learn English, and after all those who are in line to come to the United States at the present time and have come to the United States, go to the back of the line and work your way to citizenship by playing by the rules. There are 70,000 permanent resident aliens who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you don't play by the rules, then you are subject to deportation. That is earning legal status, and that is the process we follow.

All undocumented immigrants deserve this chance, but only those who pay the stiff fines, work for 6 years, pay their taxes, learn English and pass a civics test will be permitted to remain in the United States.

Today, we embark on a historic debate. We have an opportunity to correct these historic wrongs. I look forward to the coming debate. Together, let us move forward, not backward, on genuine immigration reform.

Mr. President, I have been here when Republicans and Democrats have come together to accept the challenge of an issue that is not going away. This issue is not going away. We now have Republicans and Democrats working together. The President has talked about this issue as well. Surely we ought to be challenged to find a way where this Nation can make progress with Republicans and Democrats and hopefully even the administration working together to help do something that is sensible, responsible, workable, humane, and consistent with our national traditions.

I yield back whatever time is remaining.

Skip to top

Help us stay free for all your Fellow Americans

Just $5 from everyone reading this would do it.

Back to top