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Public Statements

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, on May 1, I was in Chicago to witness a monumental event. There were close to half a million people marching for comprehensive immigration reform. They were mostly people of Mexican origin, but among them were also Nigerians, Polish, Irish, Central American immigrants, and their American-born friends, family, and supporters.

By now, most Americans are familiar with the issues surrounding immigration. We have a system of legal immigration under which 1 million people apply for legal residency each year and eventually pursue citizenship if they choose. Another 500,000 come across the border illegally and evade our border patrol.

There are an estimated 12 million undocumented persons here working mostly in backbreaking jobs in agriculture, construction, packing plants, restaurants, and elsewhere. Some in the media have presented them as an invading hoard.

But I spoke to the marchers who gathered 3 weeks ago, and what I saw was nothing to fear. They have come here for the same reason other immigrants have come for generations: to pursue the notion that they can make a better life for themselves, and most importantly for their children, if they work hard and apply themselves.

Our country is ambivalent about this influx of undocumented immigrants. Many Americans, including myself, believe that these people are doing what many of us would do for our own children in the same situation. They take immense risks to get here and would not have come illegally if they could have come legally through the limited visas we issue each year.

But while Americans understand the human desire to pursue a better life, they know we do not have an infinite capacity to absorb everyone who would like to come here. Ours is a nation of laws. And we cannot perpetuate a system that continues to have people coming here outside the law.

Economists debate the effect undocumented workers have on the economy and opportunities available to Americans. There are areas where immigrants are doing jobs Americans would not do. But there are other circumstances where employers are bringing in workers for jobs that Americans would fill if employers paid fair wages. In the African-American community, where unemployment rates often remain high, there is some tension about whether we should be importing large numbers of workers to compete with American workers.

What I say to them is that immigrants in illegal status have no ability to fight for fair pay and fair treatment. African-American workers and Latinos at the bottom of the wage ladder will all be better off if these workers can come out hiding and defend themselves.

Today, under Chairman Specter, Senator Leahy, Senator McCain, and Senator Kennedy's leadership, we will pass a bill that provides stronger border security, meaningful enforcement in the workplace, and a long, earned pathway to citizenship. The idea for the undocumented is that they would jump through multiple hoops over an 11-year period to earn the right to stay and eventually become citizens of the United States.

The Senate bill upholds our tradition as a nation of immigrants and proposes reforms in a comprehensive, commonsense manner, and it imposes new, strict but sensible enforcement mechanisms.

The opponents of this effort have called it amnesty. They would prefer a punitive House bill that builds a wall across our southern border, deports the 12 million people here illegally, and makes any undocumented worker a felon.

That kind of approach is not realistic. We are not going to deport 12 million people. Millions of them have American children. Many have been here for many years and have deep roots. It is hard to imagine that we would have police and immigration officials invading people's homes, separating families, and forcibly sending people home. But Americans are right to demand that we end illegal immigration going forward.

The draconian House legislation led to the marches. But what started as marches of fear on the part of immigrant workers has turned into a movement of hope. People are hoping they have an opportunity to legalize their status in some way. Their hope and our hope is that we can move forward together.

This was and will continue to be an emotional debate. What we saw in the marches was the face of a new America. The face of our country is changing, and we cannot be threatened by it. I strongly believe that we are going to be better off united than divided.

But I also believe in a common culture. I told the immigrants at the marches that citizenship involves a common language, a common faith in the country, a common sense of purpose, and a loyalty to a common flag. I believe that this is what the immigrant community wants. They want to follow in the steps of the millions who came before them and helped our country meld from many peoples into one Nation. In diversity we come together as one.

To those who fear immigrants, I say we cannot have a country in which you have a servant class picking our lettuce, mowing our lawns, and caring for our children, but who never have the full rights and obligations of citizenship.

Today, the Senate will respond to the call for action from not only these marchers but all Americans who want to uphold our finest traditions. It has been a tough few weeks, but I am proud of this body today. We worked hard, conducted a civil debate, and have taken a big step toward fixing our immigration system. My hope is the conferees will put their stamp of approval on the Senate bill we are passing today.

Let me say that while I support this bill, it is not perfect. I have serious reservations about several of the provisions in the bill, most notably the guest worker provision. I voted for two amendments offered by Senator Dorgan that would have eliminated or sunsetted the provision, but these amendments failed. I am pleased, however, that the Senate adopted an amendment by Senator Bingaman that lowers the number of guest workers that could enter the country under this bill.

I also am concerned about the changes we have made to the diversity visa program that will end up disadvantaging potential immigrants from underrepresented countries, such as African countries.

On balance, however, this is a very good bill. It gives us strong border security, makes hiring illegal workers virtually impossible, and provides all those families, children, mothers, and fathers I saw in that amazing march with the opportunity to become full members of the American community.

I was pleased that two amendments I offered were included in the bill. One amendment strengthened the prevailing wage requirements in the bill for all American workers and all jobs. It also ensured that communities where the American unemployment rate is high will not experience unnecessary competition from guest workers.

The second amendment was a collaborative effort with Senators Grassley, Kennedy, and Baucus to create a new employment eligibility verification system. We are making it simple but mandatory for employers to verify that their employees are legally eligible to work here. This amendment will have a far greater impact on stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into this country than simply building a fence along the border.

I commend my colleagues for their work on this legislation. Together, with faith in the values that unite our country, we are moving forward true to our tradition as a nation of immigrants that is capable of coming together to resolve difficult challenges.

I urge my colleagues to support this bill.


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