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Kennedy on House Immigration Subcommittee Hearing

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Kennedy on House Immigration Subcommittee Hearing

"We have heard the same theme echoed over and over again by opponents of comprehensive immigration reform. They call the Senate bill amnesty and compare it to the failed reform effort of 1986.

This criticism is wrong on both counts: the Senate bill's earned legalization program is not amnesty; and it is radically different from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).

First, as President Bush and others have emphasized time and again, earned legalization is not an amnesty. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez made the point eloquently at a Senate hearing just last week.

Amnesty, by definition, is an automatic pardon, or free pass, granted to a group of individuals without requiring any actions in return. IRCA was an amnesty—immigrants only had to prove their presence in the United States before a certain date to qualify for permanent residence. In contrast, the Senate bill requires immigrants to earn legal status. They must qualify and pay over $3,000 in fines to enter into the program, and then they must earn legal status by continuing to work for 6 years, learn English, pay taxes, and meet additional requirements before becoming eligible for a green card.

Even after jumping through all these hoops, undocumented immigrants who qualify for a green card still don't cut in front of anyone in the line. None of the current undocumented will be eligible for green cards until all of those already waiting are processed through the system.

Immigrants who have been in the country fewer than five years face an even more difficult path to legal status. They will be required to leave the country and re-enter as temporary workers, and they will likely face an even longer timeline to earn their green cards.

So no matter how you slice it, this bill doesn't include a pardon or free pass for anyone. But it provides for a fair chance for hard working men and women who have made a home and a life in this country to earn the chance to stay here legally.

Many critics of the Senate bill focus on these earned legalization provisions, but few of them offer a realistic alternative for how to deal with the undocumented immigrants already in the United States. Shall we round up 12 million or so men, women, and children and drive them across the border? Seventy percent of the undocumented population has lived in the United States for five years or more. Many have U.S. citizen families and careers here. Blunt force enforcement like that envisioned by the House bill will only serve to drive these hard-working individuals deeper underground, harming US security and depressing US wages in the process.

The second point I want to emphasize is that this bill does not repeat the mistakes from 1986; it corrects them. The IRCA failed because it did not create the tools or provide the muscle to enforce employer sanctions against those who hire undocumented immigrants. The Senate bill includes major changes to the worksite enforcement provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act which have been specifically designed—in painstaking bipartisan negotiations with Senators Chuck Grassley and Jon Kyl—to address the flaws of the IRCA.


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