Immigration Reform

Floor Speech

By:  Dick Durbin
Date: Jan. 28, 2013
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, it was July of 1911. A boat arrived in Baltimore. It came over from Germany. And among the passengers getting off that boat were a small number of people from Lithuania. They included my grandmother, my aunt, my uncle, and my mom. My mother was 2 years old in 1911, and she was brought to America along with her family as an immigrant.

I wish I had asked the questions before everyone passed on about how much anyone remembered from that experience because I have always wondered about it. I always wondered how this family who spoke no English got off that boat and got to East St. Louis, IL, which is where I grew up, and where a lot of Lithuanian immigrants went to work in the packinghouses, in the steel mills, and coal mines nearby. But that is the story of the Durbin family, at least my mother's side of it. It is not a unique story. It is a story of America.

My mother came to this country 2 years of age, with a mother who did not speak English, and today her son serves in the U.S. Senate. It is a great story about this great country. It also tells the story of how many millions such as her came to these shores looking for something that was important in their lives--first and foremost, to feed their children, to get a job. That is always the No. 1 reason.

But up in my office here, just a few steps away from the Senate floor, in a desk drawer I have one thing that was carried in the luggage by my grandmother when she came over from Lithuania. It is a prayer book. It is a Catholic prayer book. We are Roman Catholics. They were leaving Lithuania where the Russian czar had come in and said to the Roman Catholics: If you are not Russian Orthodox, you are going to have to play by different rules. And one of the rules is, you can't have any of your prayer books written in Lithuanian. They must be written in Russian.

Well, my grandmother, whom I never knew, must have been a defiant and risk-taking woman because she had one of these contraband prayer books and brought it with her to America because she knew she could use it here without a problem because of the freedoms in this country.

That again is a little family story from my life experience, my family experience, but one that could be replicated in many different ways.

We just had a press conference upstairs, and you may see some coverage a little later on. There were five of us representing six Senators who had been sitting together and working on this immigration issue--three Democrats and three Republicans. On the Democratic side, I have been honored to join Chuck Schumer of New York and BOB MENENDEZ of New Jersey. On the Republican side is John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Marco Rubio of Florida. It is a pretty interesting group, right? It is a pretty interesting political spectrum represented by these six Senators.

For the last few months, we have been sitting down and working out a statement of principles about immigration reform. And today we unveiled those principles. We have a lot of work to do. We still have to write the law, and we still have to bring it to the Senate to be debated and to be passed.

I do not assume for a minute that we are going to have the support of every Senator on both sides of the aisle. That would be too much to consider or to ask. But I know from listening to the speeches that were given by Senator Sessions of Alabama and Senator Vitter of Louisiana, they have many questions they want to ask about how we approach immigration reform. So let me try, if I can, to speak to some of the basics that are included in our effort.

First, when I listened to the Senator from Louisiana, he said that President Obama had done little to enforce immigration laws. I think you will find, for the record, that this President has deported more people in his tenure than predecessors, particularly those who have been associated with criminal activity. In fact, he has received some criticism saying he is going too far. So to argue that he is not enforcing the law is not supported by the facts and the statistics.

The Senator from Louisiana also said that President Obama was the author of the Fast and Furious program, which was a border effort to try to stop the flow of guns that blew up in the face of those who engineered it, and ended up in the tragic death of one of our own. I would say for the record that program began under President Bush, not under President Obama. So there are some facts that we need to put on the record. But I wish to also speak to a couple elements here that have been raised about this effort on immigration reform.

Let's get down to basics. Immigration is part of who we are in America. It is the reason we are such a diverse

Nation. My family story, as I said, could be repeated over and over. Every generation has faced a new wave of immigration coming into this country.

I think it is healthy. I think there is something in the DNA of those people who get up and come here who are determined to improve their lives. These people turn out to be the entrepreneurs and the teachers and the leaders of our Nation because they were not content staying in someplace where they did not achieve their goals. They wanted to come to America.

So immigration is part of who we are, and the debate over immigration is part of who we are. It has been going on forever. I think as soon as the first boat to America landed with immigrants, they started questioning whether we needed another boatload of immigrants. That debate has gone on throughout our history. There have been some terrible things done in the name of immigration reform and some good things as well.

Secondly, immigration and the demand for immigration says a great deal about America. People want to come here. It says a lot about it, doesn't it? Here we are in a democracy with the freedoms we enjoy and an economy that offers such wonderful opportunities, and people from all over the world, given a choice, would come here for their future. That is a positive.

But the third thing is, our immigration system is broken. I got elected about 16 years ago to the Senate. One of the first phone calls came from Senator Ted Kennedy, chair of the Immigration Subcommittee in the Judiciary. He said: Welcome to the Judiciary Committee. Please come on my Immigration Subcommittee. I said: Well, thank you. I am honored you would ask. He said: We are about to rewrite the immigration laws. We have not done it for 10 years. The last time was under President Reagan. Now we are going to do it again, and we need you to be part of it.

Oh, I signed up in a hurry. It did not happen and 16 years have passed.

So for 25 years-plus, we have not looked at this immigration law. It is broken. It is broken badly. It is broken when we have 11 or 12 million people living here who are undocumented. Many of them came here on a legal visa and overstayed their visa. Some did sneak across the border to come into the United States. There are a variety of explanations, but they are here. I have come to know them. For many people who are not in this business, maybe you do not know them. But I will tell who they are.

They happen to be the person who just took the plates off your table at the restaurant. They are the ones who are unloading the food at the dock behind the restaurant. They will be making the beds in the hotel rooms across America tonight. A lot of them are in the day-care centers every day with our children and grandchildren, whom we dearly love. Some are tending to our parents and grandparents who are in nursing homes. And some of them have sat down next to you in church on a regular basis. They are undocumented. They do not talk about it. They do not wear it on their sleeves. Many of them are afraid to say anything. And they do not live in a house full of undocumented people. By and large, you are going to find families split up. You may find dad, who has been here the longest, who qualified under the Reagan amnesty in 1986. He is a legal citizen. Mom is not. All three children born here are. There is a family that is literally split by our immigration system.

That is the reality of what we see in America today. The question is, how did we reach this point? What can we do about it? We now are sitting down on a bipartisan basis to address it.

First, we need to make sure we are doing everything we reasonably can do at the border to keep illegal immigration down, to reduce it as low as possible. I know, as I said earlier, there are people from all over the world who want to come here.

But for those who suggest we are not doing enough at the border, I wish to call their attention to a recent press release from the Migration Policy Institute. This press release is from January 7 of this year. It says: ``The U.S. government spends more on federal immigration enforcement than on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined, with the nearly $18 billion spent in fiscal 2012 approximately 24 percent higher than collective spending for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. ..... ''

So to argue that this President is not enforcing the law, when we have so many deportations, and to argue that he is not taking it seriously, when we are spending record-breaking amounts on the borders is not backed up by the facts. But still we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep the borders safe and to reduce illegal immigration. That is the first thing.

The second thing is to say that those who are here, if they want to be legal, have to earn their way to legal status. How do they earn it? First they go through a criminal background check. We do not want anyone here who is a threat to our Nation or to the people who live here. They will be asked to leave. In fact, they will be forced to leave.

But for those who pass the criminal background check, they will need to pay a fine, they have to pay their taxes, and then they can stay and work in a probationary legal status while we make the borders safe. Ultimately, they have to be able to speak English, learn our history and civics, and then go through a lengthy process before they are granted--even possibly granted--citizenship.

We also say at the same time that we are going to build into this system enforcement for the workplace. What brings most people to America? Jobs. It is all about a job. If in the workplace we have real enforcement, where we have an identification card from those who are seeking a job, and an obligation on the part of the employer to make sure they are registered in this country, then we can start to have a system of enforceability.

We also need--and Senator Rubio of Florida has been pushing this--we also need to make sure that when it comes to visas in the United States, when we allow people to travel here to be tourists or students or for business purposes, and they have an expiring visa, they leave when they are supposed to. Our system now is not as good as it should be. We want to strengthen that system. That is part of what we need to do.

I think immigration reform is long overdue. This immigration system we have is badly broken and needs to be fixed.

We need to take the leadership in Washington. This bipartisan group of Senators has started an effort in that direction. We have a long way to go. We have to write the bill. We hope to have it done by March. We hope to bring it through the committee process for regular hearings, for the amendment process and everything that entails. That, to me, will make sense in the long run. In the meantime, I want to say a word about the DREAM Act.

I introduced that bill 12 years ago. It was referred to on the Senate floor. It is worth a minute or two to recount why I introduced the bill.

We received a phone call in our office from a program in Chicago known as the Merit Music Program. It is a wonderful program. A lady left some money for it and said to use the money to buy musical instruments for kids in poor schools and to give them music lessons.

What an amazing transformation it has created in their lives. One hundred percent of the graduates of the Merit Music Program go to college, all of them. It is an amazing thing what a musical experience will do for a young person.

Well, there was a young Korean girl named Tereza Lee who came from an extremely poor family. She became part of the Merit Music Program and turned out to be an accomplished pianist. She was encouraged to apply to go to Julliard School of Music and Manhattan Conservatory of Music she was so good.

As she started to fill out the application, she stopped and turned to the person at the program and said: I don't know why I am doing this. I am undocumented. I have never told anybody that. But I do not know why I am wasting my time with this--at which point they called our office and said: What can we do for Tereza?

Well, it turned out the law was very clear. She had to leave the United States for 10 years, go back to Brazil, which was the last country she was in, and then apply to come to the United States. That seemed unfair. She was brought here when she was 2 years old. She did not vote on that. Her parents picked her up and brought her here.

I started thinking: I bet there are others just like her. It turns out there are--hundreds of thousands. So I introduced the DREAM Act.

Here is what it said: If you were brought to the United States before the age of 16, you finish high school, you have no serious criminal issues, and you are prepared to either enlist in our military or finish at least 2 years of college, we will give you a chance to become a citizen. I introduced it 12 years ago.

I have called it up on the Senate floor over and over. The Senator from Louisiana is correct; the Senate did not pass it. We could not get 60 votes to break the Republican filibuster on the DREAM Act. We had a majority, we just did not have 60. That was several years ago.

So President Barrack Obama, who was my colleague in the Senate before he was elected President and was a cosponsor of the DREAM Act, said: I am going to suspend the deportation of those young people who would be eligible under the DREAM Act. He did. It went into effect last August.

Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Chicago is a great leader on immigration reform. He and I held a workshop in August at Navy Pier, which is a big gathering place in Chicago, for those who would be eligible for this deferral of deportation under the DREAM Act. We never dreamed they would start lining up at midnight the night before. They would stay out there all night long with their families waiting for a chance to sign up. It was such a heart-warming experience to know how much this meant not only to the young persons but many times to their undocumented parents who thought: At least my child will get this chance.

So some criticized the President for making this decision. But two-thirds of the American people, Democrats and Republicans alike, think it was the right decision. I do too. I have met those Dreamers. I have talked about them on the floor of the Senate over and over. I will continue. But these young people will make this a better country. They deserve a chance to do just that.

So those who are critical of the DREAM Act are basically saying these young people are not needed in this country. I think they are. They have spent their whole life being educated here. They have gotten up every morning and in school put their hands on their hearts and pledged allegiance to that great flag, believing this is their country too. They deserve a chance to make it such.

Marco Rubio of Florida and I have worked on this DREAM Act issue. He said something I remember and would like to recount. He said: This is not an immigration issue; this is an issue of compassion, humanitarianism. These people were kids when they were brought here. They deserve this chance. So I know this will be included in any immigration reform. I certainly hope we will pass it and pass it soon.

We spoke to the President last night. Senator Schumer and I had a conversation with him. Tomorrow he will be making a statement in Nevada about immigration. He is committed to immigration reform. He is committed to fixing this system. He told us what we are setting out to do is generally consistent with what he wants to see done. But he did tell us: Get it done. Do not let this drag out again. Seize the moment and move forward with it.

Well, we have that chance. We have to do it. We have to do it because this Nation of immigrants, this Nation that will still attract immigrants, needs a legal system that works for those who are here and for those who want to come here. We have to make sure we are sensitive to the fact that Americans should receive the first preference for jobs, and that will be included in our bill, but also beyond that jobs that some Americans do not want. In agriculture, for example, and in other areas, we need some people coming in to help. They can be part of this immigration reform as well.

I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.


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