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ABC "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" with Senator Barack Obama


Location: Unknown


MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The big story in Washington remained immigration. Showdown votes in the Senate are expected this week and our first guest is a key player in the debate, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. Welcome back to "This Week," Senator.

SEN. OBAMA: Great to talk to you, George.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We know that this issue divides Republicans. It divides the country. It is also beginning to divide Democrats, particularly the provision of the bill that calls for a guest worker -- it allows 400,000 guest workers into the country. The head of the AFL-CIO says that's going to harm all workers. Your colleague, Senator Byron Dorgan, calls it "a corporate strategy to keep wages low." What do you say to your fellow Democrats?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think there are three components to this bill. And all three are critical. The first is border security. And this bill, I think we haven't talked enough about the enforcement provisions in the bill that came out of the Judiciary Committee. Improving border security, tightening employer sanctions. All those provisions, I think, are absolutely critical.

The second provision is providing a pathway to citizenship. We've got 11-12 million undocumented workers in the country. We want to regularize their lives, bring them out into the open, make sure that employers are not exploiting them, and that's something, I think, that is good for all Americans.

The third component is this guest worker program. And I think that that, within the Democratic Caucus, probably generates the most controversy. The numbers that are allowed under the program are about 400,000. That number may be too high. I think it's important, and I'm preparing amendments to make sure that if we have a guest worker program that it is targeted at those industries like agriculture where it really is difficult to find American workers. In some cases and in some particular cities, there may be worker shortages where this is justified. In others, there may not be.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And will you require employers to pay at or above the average wage to make sure that this is not a program that depresses wages?

SEN. OBAMA: That would be a provision that I would support. I think a lot of Democrats would support it. I think the broader story here is that the American people have a pretty good common sense approach to immigration. I think they recognize that we're a nation of immigrants. I think they want to continue that legacy. What I think they're concerned about is that if there is no legal process whereby immigrants are coming here, and you have these horrendous, heartbreaking stories of people coming across the borders, many of them putting themselves at risk, where they're living in the shadows and potentially being abused by employers, that's something that I think concerns them. They're willing to provide a pathway to citizenship, earned citizenship that takes 11 years and requires at least 10 criteria, they're willing to go along with that as long as they feel like the borders are actually secured and people aren't being exploited.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But a lot of people are going to get hurt. Harvard economist George Borjaus has shown that low-income workers, especially high school dropouts, lose about eight percent of their income because of immigrants and there's particular concern that this is going to really hurt the African-American community. I saw Professor Ron Walter of the University of Maryland is quoted in The New York Times this morning saying that this is causing great angst among African-American leadership. "It's not just a black problem," he says, "but we are the most acutely affected. The fact is it's hurting us."

SEN. OBAMA: Look, I don't think there's any doubt that low- skill workers of every race are having problems right now because of globalization. There may be some modest impact on employment rates or wages at the very bottom of the skills level as a consequence of undocumented workers in particular areas. Part of that is because undocumented workers have no legal status and so they're vulnerable to being exploited and wages are further depressed. The more that we can get those folks subject to existing rules -- minimum wage laws, making sure that worker safety laws are overseen and so forth, then the costs of hiring undocumented workers actually increases. And that will potentially have a salutary impact on all workers. But here's one thing I want to make sure of -- that we're not using this debate to further divide African-American workers who are struggling and Latino or Polish or Ukrainian workers who are struggling. They're all struggling.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But isn't that what's going to happen?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, no, look, if anybody thinks that the problem of unemployment among African-American youth in inner-city Baltimore or Los Angeles or Chicago is somehow caused by illegal immigration, then I don't think they're looking at the larger trends. The fact of the matter is that we've got a whole host of issues within the African-American community that have to be dealt with. And employers do need to systematically reach out to these groups, something that's not being done. But the reason they're not is not because of undocumented workers.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You've mentioned a couple of times this pathway to what you call "earned citizenship." As you know, the opponents of that call it "amnesty." And one of the proposals that's going to be talked about this week is suggesting that anyone who is here will first have to go home before they can be put on that pathway, whether they're illegals here or part of the guest worker program. Can you go along with that?

SEN. OBAMA: I cannot, George, because nobody who makes these proposals has explained to me a realistic mechanism whereby we're going to ship 11-12 million people out of the country. People who are our neighbors, people who have children in the schools all across the country, people who are workers in vital industries. The notion that somehow these 12 million people are going to get on a bus and go back across the border just isn't realistic. And I think that what we have to acknowledge is that these are people who came to this country for the same reason that most of our parents, grandparents, great- grandparents came to this country -- in search for a better life. They didn't follow the rules for legal immigration, but these are not people who have done us harm or are lawbreakers, or came here for nefarious reasons. They came here in search of a better life.

We need to figure out how can we create a system of serious border enforcement. How can we make sure that employers are not taking advantage of the porous borders that we have. So I think that employer sanctions that are serious and serious verification systems that can't be ignored they way they are right now is absolutely critical.

And then we have to say to the 11 million to 12 million people who are already here and are working alongside us and living alongside us, let's make sure that you are not a permanent underclass, but rather you're part of the broader American community.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Is the Senate going to pass a bill this week?

SEN. OBAMA: I think that it is going to be close. I think we have a majority for a bill along the lines that came out of the Judiciary Committee. What I'm not yet certain of is whether we have a sixty-vote majority. It is possible that opponents of the legislation mount a filibuster.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn to Iraq. Secretary of State Rice landed in Baghdad this morning with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, trying to push the different Iraqi factions into an agreement on a government. Basically, it looks like the United States is trying to push the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, out. Several of your democratic colleagues have said if the Iraqis don't create a government within the next four or five weeks, then the U.S. has to reassess its whole position. Should Secretary Rice be telling the Iraqis if you can't get it together, you cannot count on U.S. military support. We're going to have to reassess?

SEN. OBAMA: Absolutely. Look, I traveled there in January and my assessment coming back was there is no military solution to this problem, there's only a political solution to this problem. The Shiia's, the Kurds, the Sunnis, they have to make a decision that they want to live together. We cannot enforce unity in Iraq through military means. We can be a useful partner to them as they are rebuilding their country.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But are you willing to say that we should pull out if they don't get their act together?

SEN. OBAMA: I think that we should condition our continued presence there on their willingness to work together in a non- sectarian fashion and that means some very concrete things. It means, for example, that the security apparatus can't be controlled by sectarians. We can't have a Ministry of the Interior that controls the police that is using that as an extension of the militias and rounding up Sunnis and being involved in executions or kidnappings. That is not something we can be party to and we just can't be successful. It is not fair for us to put our brave young men and women who have been doing an outstanding job in Iraq, put them in a position where they are caught up in the middle of a civil war. We can't prevent a civil war militarily if there's not a willingness on the part of the leadership there to get their act together.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama, thank you very much.

SEN. OBAMA: Thank you, George.


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