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National Public Radio Talk of the Nation - Transcript

Location: Washington, DC

National Public Radio (NPR)

SHOW: Talk of the Nation (2:00 PM ET) - NPR

HEADLINE: Legislation regarding the rights of immigrants



CONAN: Joining us now from Capitol Hill is one of the sponsors of that bill, Senator Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, and it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Senator LARRY CRAIG (Republican, Idaho): Neal, thank you.

CONAN: What would this bill do if it became law?

Sen. CRAIG: Well, of course, we've struggled mightily for the last good number of years to try to perfect a way to not only identify but legalize the process so that we can control the border and, more importantly or as importantly, provide a stable work force for American agriculture and give those who work there the same rights and the kind of equity that they deserve to have as workers in this country. So what we do, Neal, is began a overhaul of what is known as the H-2A program to make it less cumbersome for the agricultural employer to have to identify with. Last year, that program certified between 45 and 50,000 ag workers, and yet, there were about 1.6 million ag workers in the United States working. So that'll give you an idea of how broke this process is.

CONAN: Well, we can see that there might be a problem in agriculture, but there are problems in other industries, too. Why limit it to agriculture?

Sen. CRAIG: Well, let's take one step at a time, and I think that's what all of us recognize here on the Hill and in Congress. If we can bring together the coalition of forces that streamline this process, identify it and control this worker flow so that we accomplish two things. Obviously, stabilizing the work force for agriculture and giving reasonable and humane treatment to those who work within agriculture. That's step one. If this model works and works effectively, then all other segments--the service industry and the high-tech industry and others--may well follow suit.

It is guesstimated that we've got six million-plus illegals in our country. Now they're not all evil people. The vast majority of them are here, they're hard-working people. They're here to make money, and some of them would like to take it home to where they live. But if you are illegal and you've moved illegally across the border, it's very difficult to go home. It's as difficult to go home as it is to get here. You are at risk at all times, so you live in the shadows, and you live in the back alleys, and you live in substandard environments. We hopefully bring those folks forward. There's a way for them to identify, to legalize, to get a green card and to be able to come and work and go home if they choose, and to continue to work here and to earn their way into the legal status.

CONAN: As you know, there are critics who argue that this kind of legislation just rewards people who broke the law, as you pointed out and, of course, not just illegal immigrants but also the farms and other businesses, the big employers who hire them.

Sen. CRAIG: Well, first and foremost, those who hire them, whether they're legal or illegal, are paying top wage in that wage market for them. They're paying minimum wage, some of the 8 to $10 an hour. Some of them are paying piecemeal wage that actually, by contract, produces a good deal more per hour than that. So it is not argued here by anybody who understands the market that agriculture's getting a sweet deal here.

The reality is the law is broken. When you have a broken law, yes, they violated the law. I don't dispute that. But when the law is broken, first of all, you're not going to round up 1.6 million individuals and move them across the border. You're going to fix the law. You're going to make it workable. Hopefully, you can then begin to manage the situation by identifying it effectively and controlling your borders, and that's what it's all about. When you don't control your borders and identify the people who flow across them, then the realities of 9/11 starkly are right in front of you, and that's a part of what we're trying to do here, is begin to control process.

CONAN: Let's get a phone caller in, and Josh joins us on the line from Boston, Massachusetts.

JOSH (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Josh.

JOSH: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOSH: I'm a person who feels for people who want to come here for a better life. These are, as you said before, hard-working law-abiding citizens. However, you can't ignore that they are law-abiding and, therefore, once they cross that border, they are no longer doing that. There's a reason that this country has, for a very long time, had a limit on the number of people we take in, and we can't take everybody in. And so if you just open the floodgates, then what?

Sen. CRAIG: Well, first of all, this isn't opening any floodgate. You have to have been here for a minimum of 12 months basically to qualify for this program to get legalized. You've got to show that you have been here, you've been working, and show the receipts of that labor to be able to identify. There is a cutoff date, and that's October 1, 2003. Anybody who tries to sneak under the wire after that is illegal, and they've got to be able to prove that. I don't disagree with you on floodgates, but the floodgates have been wide open for a decade or more.

There are 6 to 8 million foreign nationals in this country that are illegal. So something isn't working out there. Let me suggest that we close the floodgates, and ag jobs is a closure process. It's a way of controlling the border and doing it in a legal, organized fashion where you identify and control the flow. What I'm doing and others are doing is try to step out and solve a very large problem. So to argue that we're opening floodgates and to ignore the 6 million-plus illegals that are already in the country really doesn't argue the point, in my opinion, very validly. The gates are open now. We're trying to control them.

CONAN: Josh, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

JOSH: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Senator Craig, we know you're very busy and we appreciate your time today, as always.

Sen. CRAIG: Well, Neal, thank you very much. I'm glad you're taking on this topic. It is an important one for our country. It is an issue that begs for solutions and management. A country that does not control its border and control access to its economies is a country that begins to lose its character, and ours is a diverse character, but it's a controlled one. We know that. We appreciate it. And that's what we're attempting to do here.

CONAN: Senator Larry Craig, a Republican of Idaho, speaking with us from Capitol Hill. And he also sits on the subcommittees for immigration and homeland security. And, as always, we appreciate his contributions.

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