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Public Statements

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. McCAIN. Mr. President, I thank my friend, the Senator from Alabama, because I know he has a great deal more to say about the pending legislation this morning. I appreciate his allowing me a few minutes to discuss my view. I thank him for his courtesy.

I thank my friend from Colorado, Senator Salazar, for his leadership, for his involvement and his integrity. What a great honor it has been for me to work with him on this and a number of other issues over several years. I thank him.

Immigration reform is long overdue. I am proud to support this historic overhaul of our immigration system. This bill represents weeks, months and, in some cases, years of work by the proponents of this bill. The President has shown tremendous leadership on this issue and has dedicated countless hours to the process. While I may not be in agreement--and most of us are not in agreement--with each and every provision of the bill, it offers a good starting point for debate and a good framework. The proponents of this bill have come together to try to fix one of the most serious issues facing our country. We have put partisan politics aside in order to forge a consensual proposal to allow us to start a full floor debate on immigration reform. Others need to do the same.

Those of us from border States witness every day the impact illegal immigration is having on our friends and neighbors, our county and city services, our economy, and our environment. We deal with the degradation of our lands and the demands imposed on our hospitals and other public resources. However, I have learned over the last several years this is not only a border State problem; this is a national problem. It affects the dairy farmers in Vermont and the cattlemen in Colorado. It also affects the poultry processors in Georgia, the construction worker in Nevada, and the housewife in Maine. Our current system doesn't protect us from people who want to harm us. It doesn't meet the needs of our economy, and it leaves too many people vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Throughout this debate, we will be reminded that immigration is a national security issue, and it is. It is also a matter of life and death. We have hundreds of people trying to cross our borders every day, an estimated 12 million people living in the shadows of our country. While we believe the majority are hard-working people contributing to our economy and society, we can also assume there are some people who want to do us harm hiding among the millions who have come here only in search of better lives for themselves and their families. We need new policies that will allow us to concentrate our resources on finding those who have come here for purposes more dangerous than finding a job.

Last year the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill, but it never even got to conference. This year we realized we had to take a different approach if we wanted to enact real reforms. New ideas and concepts were incorporated into the bill that helped to enhance the comprehensive nature of the bill and ensure the strongest tools were in place to enforce our laws and secure our border. First and foremost among our priorities was to ensure this bill included strong border security and enforcement provisions. We need to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security has the resources it needs to secure our borders to the greatest extent possible. These include manpower, vehicles, and detention facilities for those apprehended. But we also need to take a 21st century approach to this 21st century problem. We need to create virtual barriers as well through the use of unmanned aerial systems, ground sensors, cameras, vehicle barriers, advanced communications systems, and the most up-to-date security technologies available.

This legislation mandates that before we can move forward with a program to address the undocumented workers currently in the United States or future workers wishing to enter, we must meet certain enforcement and security benchmarks that will let everyone know we are enforcing our laws and that we are not going to repeat the 1986 amnesty. These triggers include the hiring of 20,000 Border Patrol agents, the construction of 300 miles of vehicle barriers and 370 miles of fencing, the establishment of 105 ground-based radar and camera towers along the southern border, and the deployment of 4 unmanned aerial vehicles and supporting systems. It also includes the end of catch and release, the ability to detain up to 31,500 aliens per day on an annual basis, the use of secure and effective identification tools to prevent unauthorized workers, and the receiving, processing, and adjudication of applications for the undocumented workers applying for legal status.

Every one of these items must be in place and fully funded before a single temporary worker enters our country or a single undocumented immigrant receives a permanent legal status in the United States. I believe these requirements are a substantial improvement over previous measures. Not only will this legislation finally accomplish the extraordinary goal of securing our borders, it will also greatly improve interior enforcement and put employers on notice that the practice of hiring illegal workers simply will not be tolerated. Business as usual is no longer acceptable, and neither is a de facto amnesty. This legislation would put in place an effective and practical employment verification system to replace the outdated I-9 system that all employers use. In the 21st century, it is unacceptable that employers are still recording important employment eligibility information with a pen and pad. We need real-time answers that will tell employers if the person sitting in front of them is not only eligible to work here but the person they actually claim to be. Employers will no longer be put in a position of judging documents presented to them at face value.

The employment verification system in this bill will allow employers to electronically verify identity and work eligibility through both DHS and the Social Security Administration, while also protecting the personal information of all U.S. workers. If we cannot adequately enforce our immigration laws at the worksite, employers will be able to continue to employ undocumented workers. That is not a scenario we will allow under this legislation.

We need the ability to have additional legal workers in this country. There are certain jobs Americans are simply not willing to do. For example, today in California, fruit is rotting on the vine and lettuce is dying in the fields, because farmers can't find workers to harvest their crops. At the same time resorts in my own State of Arizona can't open to capacity, because there aren't enough workers to clean the rooms. Restaurants are locking their doors because there is no one to serve the food or clear the dishes. We are facing a situation whereby the U.S. population does not provide the workers that businesses desperately need. Yet the demand for their services and product continues.

At the same time we have seen, time and time again under the current law, that as long as jobs are available in this country for people who live in poverty and hopelessness in other countries, those people will risk their lives to cross our borders. Our reforms need to reflect that reality and help us separate economic immigrants from security risks. This legislation does just that.

The most effective border protection tool we have is establishing a legal channel for workers to enter the United States after they have passed background checks and have secured employment. We need to establish a temporary worker program that permits workers from other countries to
come here and find work and employment and to make sure those people are here on a legal basis.

Recently, David Brooks wrote in his column:

The United States is the Harvard of the world. Millions long to get in. Yet has this country set up an admissions system that encourages hard work, responsibility and competition? No. Under our current immigration system, most people get into the U.S. through criminality, nepotism or luck. The current system does almost nothing to encourage good behavior or maximize the nation's supply of human capital.

Let's look at how this bill would improve incentives almost every step of the way.

First, consider the 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here. They now have an incentive to think only in the short term. They have little reason to invest for the future because their presence here could be taken away.

This bill would encourage them to think in the long term. To stay, they would have to embark on a long, 13-year process. They'd have to obey the law, learn English and save money (to pay the stiff fines). Suddenly, these people would be lifted from an underclass environment--semi-separate from mainstream society--and shifted into a middle-class environment, enmeshed within the normal rules and laws that the rest of us live by. This would be the biggest values-shift since welfare reform.

Second, consider the millions living abroad who dream of coming to the United States. Currently, they have an incentive to find someone who can smuggle them in, and if they get caught, they have an incentive to try and try again.

The Senate bill reduces that incentive for lawlessness. If you think it is light on enforcement, read the thing. It would not only beef up enforcement on the border, but would also create an electronic worker registry. People who overstay their welcome could forfeit their chance of being regularized forever.

I would remind my colleagues the six people arrested who wanted to attack Fort Dix, NJ, and to kill Americans--three of them came across our southern border illegally; three of them came on valid visas and overstayed them.

Moreover, aspiring immigrants would learn, from an early age, what sort of person the United States is looking for. In a break from the current system, this bill awards visas on a merit-based points system that rewards education, and English proficiency, agricultural work experience, home ownership and other traits. Potential immigrants would understand that the United States is looking for people who can be self-sufficient from the start, and they'd mold themselves to demonstrate that ability.

In essence, we are rewarding people for working hard and showing potential. These are not all high-skilled workers, but they are the kind of workers and people we should want to become citizens of our country. By combining family ties with economic realities, we can build a stronger immigration system that will help to build a stronger, more competitive economy and Nation.

In addition to future immigrant and nonimmigrant workers, we have to address the fact that 12 million people are living in the United States illegally, most of them employed--all of them contributing to our country. Our economy has come to depend on people whose existence in our country is furtive, whose whereabouts and activities in many cases are unknown. I have listened to and understand the concerns of those who simply advocate sealing our borders and making life so terrible for people here that they will self-deport. But that is easier said than done.

I fundamentally believe our Judeo-Christian society would not tolerate this type of treatment of people within our own country, whether here legally or not. We need to come up with a humane, moral way to deal with those people who are here, most of whom are not going anywhere. No matter how much we improve border security, no matter the penalties we impose on their employers, no matter how seriously they are threatened with punishment, we will not find most of them, and we will not find most of their employers.

The opponents of our proposal to address undocumented workers in this country decry as amnesty our proposal to bring them out from their shadows and into compliance with our laws. No, it is not. Amnesty is, as I observe, for all practical purposes, what exists today. We can pretend otherwise, but that does not make it so. Amnesty is simply declaring people who entered the country illegally citizens of the United States and imposing no other requirements on them. That is not what we do in this legislation.

Under the provisions of this legislation, undocumented workers will have incentives to declare their existence and comply with our laws. They may apply for a worker visa. They would be subjected to background checks. They must pay substantial fines and fees, totaling approximately $7,000, learn English, enroll in civic education, remain employed and, if they choose to get a green card, go to the end of the line behind those who waited legally outside of the country to come in.

I believe most undocumented workers will accept these requirements in order to escape the fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability to exploitation they currently endure. While those who have come here to do us harm will not come out of hiding to accept those conditions, we will at least be spared the Herculean task of finding and sorting through millions of people who came here simply to earn a living.

We are aware of the burdens illegal immigrants impose on our cities and counties and States. Those burdens which are a Federal responsibility must be addressed. We need also to face honestly the moral consequences of our current failed immigration system.

I am hopeful at the end of this debate we can show the American people that we addressed a serious and urgent problem with sound judgment, honesty, common sense, and compassion. I hope we can show that we reached across the aisle to try to solve a serious problem in a serious way.

It seems almost trite at this point to once again state that our Nation's immigration system is broken and in bad need of repair. But without comprehensive immigration reform, it is a fact that our Nation's security will remain vulnerable. We must act immediately or face the consequences of another summer of people dying in our deserts, businesses shutting their doors because they do not have the manpower to stay open, and criminals hiding in the shadows of our society mixed in with hard-working people who are the backbone of our economy.

The Senate must have the courage and will to solve this crisis facing our Nation. The American people are demanding action. I say the time is overdue, and we are failing the citizens of the United States if we do not pass this important piece of legislation and ultimately achieve its enactment and implementation. If we do fail, what then?

Mr. President, I thank my colleagues, and I thank my friend from Colorado.

I yield the floor.

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