STATEMENT BY SENATOR EDWARD M. KENNEDY AT SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE FIELD HEARING ON "EXAMINING THE NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM"
Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling this important hearing on comprehensive immigration reform and temporary worker programs.
Two hundred thirty years and one day ago, here in Philadelphia, we declared our independence and launched a nation of freedom and opportunity that is the envy of the world. So today, as we consider immigration reform, we have a solemn duty to uphold our one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all, and to preserve and strengthen it for future generations.
The challenge before us is complex. We cannot solve it, as the House of Representatives has proposed, by simply building more fences at the border, demonizing the 12 million undocumented immigrants, declaring them and the priests and Good Samaritans who help them to be criminals, and naively hoping they just go home.
Those on the far right who continue that enforcement-only, anti-immigrant drumbeat may think its good politics. But their pandering threatens real progress toward effective immigration reform that protects our security and reflects our values as a nation of immigrants.
We have tried it their way by simply beefing up the border. We've spent more than $20 billion on it over the past decade - and it has not worked.
It is a formula for failure that will assure continued illegal immigration and leave us weak and less secure. It disparages good, hardworking immigrant families that have come here to improve their lives and to contribute to America - some of whom serve in our armed forces and are risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
They should instead listen to President Bush and to a bipartisan majority in the United States Senate when we came together to say that a complex problem such as immigration requires a comprehensive solution. They should listen to business leaders, religious leaders, and community leaders when we came together to pass effective reform. But most of all, they should listen to the American people who want immigration laws that not only will keep out those who would harm us, but welcome those who would help us.
The reforms we passed in the United States Senate, under the leadership of Chairman Specter, Senator McCain and many others, started by modernizing and strengthening our enforcement. But to succeed, we knew that we must take other realistic and effective steps at the same time. Clearly we are not going to round up and deport millions of men, women, and children, or to expect that enforcement could be made so harsh, that five percent of our workforce would decide to "self-deport." So our reforms bring the 12 million undocumented immigrants who are here now out of the shadows so that they may earn the privilege of becoming taxpaying, fully-contributing citizens and members of society. And for the future, we recognize that the demand for immigrants will continue.
Therefore, we provide a way for qualified immigrants to come here legally to meet the needs of employers and our economy while protecting the wages and jobs of American citizens.
Today's hearing focuses on several important issues: whether state and local law enforcement should be in the business of enforcing federal civil immigration laws and whether immigration reform should include a new temporary worker program.
One of the most controversial and counterproductive policies the enforcement-only proponents have proposed is the use of state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal civil immigration laws.
I have heard strong objections from state and local officials around the country who believe such a policy will seriously hamper, and not enhance, their efforts to fight crime and protect us from future terrorist attacks. The concerns raised are shared by many conservatives and security experts - all say that this would unreasonably burden local law enforcement, irreparably damage community policing programs, impose heavy financial costs on state and local governments and jeopardize the safety our neighborhoods and diverse communities.
Most importantly, this proposal undermines our national security. Since 9-11, security experts have repeatedly asserted that good intelligence is the key to ensuring national security. Ground truth comes from all sources, and often from immigrant communities. If communication shuts down because immigrants are afraid to approach local law enforcement for fear of being deported, then we lose important information and we jeopardize the security of our nation.
Let me turn now to the issue of issue of immigrant workers. Some question whether immigrant workers make important contributions to the American economy. Economists tell us that the answer to that question is yes. A recent letter signed by 500 economists, including five Nobel laureates, states clearly that "immigration has been a net gain for ... American citizens," that "immigrants do not take American jobs," and that the benefits of immigration outweigh its costs. I request unanimous consent that the entire letter be added to the record.
The fact is immigrants bring job skills which complement those of US workers.
It's true at the high end of the skills spectrum, where immigrants represent forty to fifty percent of US graduate students in strategic fields such as engineering and the physical sciences. High-tech employers need the world's best and brightest workers to remain competitive and to create more jobs for Americans here at home.
It's also true at the low end of the skills spectrum, where employers in much of the country are unable to find U.S. workers willing and able to do needed jobs in agriculture, building maintenance, health care, and food service. These are essential jobs as America shifts from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. Eight of the fifteen occupations projected by the Labor Department to have the fastest growth in the next decade are in fields especially dependent on immigrant labor.
The Senate's guest-worker program and green card reforms will ensure that the supply of visas meets the demands of our economy. It's the most realistic step we can take to fix our broken immigration system and create the conditions for successful enforcement. And it provides greater assurance that future immigration will be within the law, instead of underground, so that immigrants are less likely to be exploited, less likely to harm American wages and jobs, and are more likely to pay taxes.
We must make sure that a temporary worker program avoids the brutal legacy of exploitation that tarnished past guest worker programs. Anything less will subject migrants to abuse and undermine the jobs, wages and working conditions of U.S. workers.
The Senate bill addresses these concerns by establishing the best temporary worker program in our nation's history:
Temporary workers will not replace US workers. Employers may hire an immigrant only after spending 60 days attempting to recruit US workers at the prevailing wage being offered.
Prevailing wages will be high enough to protect American workers, relying on the Davis-Bacon Act, the Service Contract Act, collective bargaining agreements, and Labor Department surveys.
Foreign labor contractors will be tightly regulated; temporary workers will not be able to circumvent the law by working as independent contractors.
Temporary workers will be able to change jobs. Employers must comply with the rules or risk losing their labor force.
Temporary workers will be able to join unions, and cannot be hired if the company is involved in a labor dispute.
Perhaps most important, temporary workers will have the right to adjust to permanent residence after one to four years. High-skilled workers already have this opportunity, and the same standards should apply to other immigrant workers, too.
Finally, the bill authorizes funding for 2,000 new Labor Department inspectors. History tells us that boots-on-the-ground enforcement is essential to prevent workers from being victimized by bad apple employers who disrupt wages and working conditions.
The Senate bill also incorporates the AgJOBS bill which will give farm workers and their families the dignity and justice they deserve, and give agricultural employees a legal workforce. The legislation provides a fair and reasonable way for undocumented agricultural workers to earn legal status. And it reforms the current visa program, so that employers unable to find American workers can hire needed foreign workers and workers receive the protections they deserve.
The more we consider this issue, the clearer it becomes that immigrant workers are essential for our economic security and growth, and that the Senate temporary worker program is the right way to manage their contribution and prevent undocumented employment.