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Public Statements

Water Resources Development Act of 2013

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. BENNET. I wish to thank, through the Chair, the Senator from New Mexico for his kind remarks and for keeping it brief today. I know it is an issue of great importance to him and to his State.

This morning the Senate Judiciary Committee began working on the Border Security Economic Opportunity and Modernization Act, otherwise known as a bill to fix our broken immigration system. As we are here today, they are continuing to work on that bill and I think will work into the night.

Working with this group of 8--I call it a group of 8, not a gang, because Senator McCain doesn't like the term "Gang of 8,'' so in deference to him I call it the group of 8--has been one of the most rewarding experiences during my time in the Senate. My Senate colleagues in this group include Senators Schumer, McCain, Durbin, Graham, Menendez, Rubio, and Flake. I come to the floor today first to thank them for their leadership and courage to move past the talking points on this issue and to produce this bipartisan product the committee is now considering today.

This is a bill that has been applauded by editorial boards from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times--two editorial pages that seldom agree on anything. In Colorado, editorial boards from across the State, including the Denver Post, the Colorado Springs Gazette, and Durango Herald, have all praised this bill. It has the support of a wide-ranging and extremely diverse coalition from the left and the right, from business and from labor, rural and urban all across the United States.

All of this is to say the pieces are in place today to actually get something done in this town, in Washington, DC, and in Congress. That is not a small feat for a place where stalemate has become standard operating procedure. I would say we have a golden opportunity to rise above politics as usual, to do something big and something real--something that lasts and endures. We have the chance to pass commonsense, bipartisan legislation that will strengthen our economy and our families, better protect our borders and our communities, and offer a tough but fair path to citizenship for those currently here without any legal status at all. In this way we have the chance to act together to do something great for our Nation and for its future.

It is a cliche--uttered many times in this Chamber, including by me--that America is a Nation of immigrants, and, of course, that is true. But we are so used to saying and hearing that phrase we rarely take the time to act or to think: What does that even mean? There is literally no other country in the world, on this planet, for which immigration is so central to its history and to its identity as the United States of America. All of us in this Chamber--and, more importantly, every family back home we are privileged to represent--can tell us when and how their family came to this country. Did they come in a boat in the 17th century? Did they come by plane in the 20th century? Did they come by foot or by bus, with papers or without? Every one of us has a story.

My family has one of its own that won't surprise my colleagues to know I find pretty interesting. It is also utterly ordinary for this country. When I was in the second grade, my class was given an assignment. We were asked to research whose family had been in America the shortest time and the longest time. So we interviewed our parents and grandparents, we traced our genealogies, and we came up with our answer as a class. The answer was me. My family was the answer to both of these questions--the longest time and the shortest time.

My father's family came over on one of those 17th century boats. For nearly 400 years, the Bennets, in nearly one form or another, have lived in this country. Then there is my mother. She was born in Poland in 1928, while Nazi tanks were massing on the border. She and her parents endured that war in and around Warsaw. They and an aunt were the only members of their family to survive. Everybody else in their family perished at the hands of the Nazis.

They lived in Poland for a couple of years after that, but then by way of Stockholm and Mexico City, my mother and her grandparents arrived in New York City in 1950. She was 12 years old in 1950. As is the case with so many children of immigrants, she was the only one in the family who could speak any English at all. But the three of them were alive, they were free, and they had made it to America.

My mother and grandparents were able to rebuild their lives and succeed here because America welcomed them. It greeted them not with prejudice but with opportunity. They worked hard--extremely hard--to be worthy of that great gift. It was a gift my grandmother, Halina Klejman, who loved this country as deeply as anyone I have ever known, taught me and my brother and my sister never to take for granted.

So my family's history happens to run through both Plymouth and Poland, but it is not so different from the ones millions of Americans tell. Stories such as the town of San Luis, CO. San Luis is Colorado's oldest town, founded in 1851. The town was established by Latino settlers from New Mexico who migrated under a land grant issued by the Mexican Governor in Santa Fe. These immigrants were the pioneers of the Colorado settlement 25 years--25 years--before Colorado officially became a State.

The narratives of how we come here matter because they tell us who we are and where we have been. But they matter just as much for where we are going as a Nation. The future of this country will be determined not just by those of us who are in this Chamber or in this city, or even in this country today. It is going to be written by people who have yet to step foot in the United States of America. Because over our history, it is the refugees fleeing persecution--the parents seeking opportunity for their children--who make America the America we love. They are the ones who keep us fresh and free-thinking and free. They are all of us. They are every single one of us--a nation of immigrants.

Unfortunately, today's immigration policies do not reflect the history or the values that shaped it. Neither do they reflect our 21st century economic needs. Instead, our system is a hodgepodge of outdated, impractical, and convoluted laws. It is a mess of unintended consequences that hurts our businesses and families and keeps America at a competitive disadvantage in an ever-shrinking world.

There is an old Visa slogan--I mean capital V, Visa slogan--that says something like ``Life Takes Visa.'' Well, in the United States, work takes a visa--and our visa system is working against us today. It is stifling growth and making us less competitive. Travel around my home State of Colorado, as I do, and people will see what that looks like. People will meet vegetable growers in Brighton and peach farmers such as Bruce Talbott from Palisade who fear they will not have enough labor to harvest their crops season after season. They are part of Colorado's $40 billion agricultural industry--the lifeblood of our State and so vital to our Nation--yet they have no confidence--and for good reason--that a legal, reliable, and competent workforce will be available for their farms and ranches.

Fifty-seven million tourists visited Colorado in 2011. I don't know whether the Presiding Officer was among them, but we would love to have her back. If people were to talk to our ski resort operators and restaurant owners, they will hear loudly and clearly that we need a program for low-skill workers to come into this country and fill jobs Americans don't want. In cities such as Denver and Boulder a person will find high-skilled immigrants with graduate degrees in science and engineering--the kind who are 3 times more likely to file patents and 30 percent more likely to create new businesses.

In fact, more than 40 percent of the 2010 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and their children. Forty percent of the largest companies in the United States of America, which once were small companies and grew to become large companies, were created by immigrants. These companies employ more than 3.6 million people in this country and generate more than $4.2 trillion in revenue every single year.

You will also see thousands of foreign students with these highly technical advanced degrees who are being turned away. You will hear them say they have no choice but to go back to India, go back to China, and use whatever they have learned at American universities to compete down the line with American workers.

Students such as Wolfgang Pauli, a German psychology and neurocience Ph.D. student who had attended the University of Colorado-Boulder--Wolfgang was studying under a temporary visa sponsored by his adviser at the University of Colorado, but because of the inflexible nature of our visa system, his adviser wasn't able to keep him for an advanced research project despite his advanced skills and unique experience. The position went unfilled. It is a loss for the project, for innovation, and for Wolfgang.

I have been to India. I have been to Hyderabad. I have seen people sitting in front of computer screens in a room with a clock on the wall that said underneath it ``East Hartford, CT.'' I said to the guy who ran the show there: Why does that clock say East Hartford, CT, on it? He said: Because they are redesigning the engines for Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford. Two shifts a day, by the way, 24 hours a day. They are up when people in East Hartford, CT, are up. I asked: Where were the people sitting at those computers educated? He said: Half were educated in my country, in India, and half were educated in your country. What we know is if they were given the opportunity to stay here and contribute, to build their business, to apply their intellect here, many of them would, but today we are sending them away. This is crazy.

It doesn't end there. Go into our schools all across America, as I did when I was superintendent of the Denver public schools, and you will see kids, meet kids--great kids, hard-working students--enter their junior and senior years, their peers making college visits and considering careers, and you will see what it looks like when those students fully realize, in the starkest and most heart-breaking terms imaginable, what it means to live in a country without legal status; what it means to live in a place they got to through no fault of their own, without legal status.

Many of these young people--inspiring young people such as Octavio Morgan, who graduated third in his class from Bruce Randolph High School in 2011--managed to carve out a future against all odds. But I don't know how we as a Nation can continue to look them in the eye and preach opportunity and social mobility without dealing with their legal status.

You will hear about dangerous border crossings. You will hear about separated families and disrupted dreams. Yes, if we are being honest, you will also hear about jobs that went to new neighbors, and gang violence, and overcrowded schools. You will see, as we study this, and hear and feel a system that hardly qualifies as one. But that is the system we are living in unless we do something about it.

For years, even though Congress has done nothing, immigration has become a poster child for the kind of dysfunctional politics the American people have rejected, but we keep on practicing it. We keep on practicing this dysfunctional set of policies. That is the way it has been in Congress. I hope it is now changing.

But thankfully, for a lot of us who are here, that is not what we see back home--not even close.

A few years ago, a small group of us in Colorado began working on a set of principles to begin a more pragmatic and productive immigration discussion. Utah launched a similar effort in 2010, so I would like to recognize the leadership of our friends to the west for paving the way.

I was very pleased to take part in my State's effort, along with former Senator Hank Brown--no stranger to some of the people in this Chamber. Senator Brown, a Republican, is one of Colorado's greatest statesmen, with a long record of working across the aisle to get things done.

Over the course of 18 months, we traveled over 6,300 miles in Colorado--which is, by the way, not a hardship; a lot of people fly over oceans to get there to have their vacations, but still, 6,300 miles--and held about 230 meetings in the State. We talked to farmers and business owners, law enforcement officials and educators, faith leaders and Latino leaders, and all are struggling with different broken pieces of our immigration system. But we found far more agreement on what immigration reform should mean and what it ought to look like than you would ever think was possible if you listened to the politicians here in Washington or the pundits on TV.

Together, we developed a commonsense blueprint called the Colorado Compact. It puts its emphasis on a strong economy and strong national security; it cares for families while keeping our citizens safe. I am glad we developed these principles, and I am glad it was done in such a bipartisan way, in rural parts of the State as well as urban and suburban parts of the State, and that we had such a broad coalition of people, including my former opponent for this very seat, whom we assembled in support of it.

One of the things we all agreed on was that, as promising as efforts like this are--the effort in Colorado, the effort in Utah--this issue needs more than piecemeal reforms. No State's effort can be a substitute for a smart, sensible, national strategy to overhaul our immigration system, and with this new Senate proposal, that is exactly what we have.

The bipartisan Senate bill we have introduced addresses each of the issues we mentioned in the compact, and it does so in a way that is reasonable, that is compassionate and respects the rule of law. It recognizes that we must take concrete steps to further secure our borders.

We are building on steps already taken. Since 2004, the United States has doubled the border patrol. We have tripled the number of intelligence analysts working at the border. We are seizing a higher volume of contraband weapons, currency, and drugs, and net migration from Mexico is at its lowest level in decades.

Our bill would make substantial further investments at the border, including new fencing and technologies--motion sensors, virtual monitoring systems, inexpensive surveillance, and other innovative approaches--that enable us to secure the border more cheaply, more effectively, and with a smaller footprint.

However, there is still more we can do. With 40 percent of illegal immigration due to visa overstays, we need to ensure a better system for tracking people who come to our shores, who enter and exit our borders, which is why our bill provides for a stronger and more comprehensive entry/exit system.

This is a very interesting point that a lot of people do not know. Forty percent of the 11 million people who are here who are undocumented entered the country lawfully on a visa. We have a system to check them on the way in, but we do not have a system today to check whether they ever left. This is one of the ways, by the way, that the bill will prevent our finding ourselves back where we are today to begin with.

We need to secure opportunity, also, for those who are already in this country. Our bill provides a fair but tough pathway for many of the Nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, especially young people whose parents brought them here as children, just like my mother was, in search of a better life. Those here without status today would be required to undergo a background check, pay a $2,000 fine, pay all of their back taxes. They would have to go to the back of the line, which is what both parties have said for years, behind those who have gone through the proper process to immigrate. That is only fair and it is only right.

This is not just a humane thing to do, but it is sound economic policy. Conservative economist Doug Holtz-Eakin estimates that immigration reform will generate $2.7 trillion in deficit reduction and help grow the economy. Some estimates have said this bill would grow the economy by more than a percentage point of GDP. It is $1 trillion or so over a 10-year period. A path to citizenship would lead to higher wages in this country, more consumption of goods, and increased revenue.

Our bill proposes a more coordinated effort across Federal, State, and local governments, in partnership with private organizations, to help new immigrants and refugees integrate into their communities. Our immigration title, which was influenced by cities such as Littleton and Greeley, CO, would help provide immigrants with greater access to English language classes and civics education and help us cultivate stronger citizens with a greater appreciation for our Nation and her history.

With a broken immigration system hurting our businesses and workers as well, we propose an efficient, sensible, and flexible visa system that would be more aligned with our changing 21st-century economy.

As I mentioned earlier, roughly 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants. We want an immigration system that harnesses the world's innovation and talent here in the United States of America.

There is no place where this is truer than the State of Colorado, where 1 in 10 entrepreneurs is an immigrant. Colorado has a high-tech sector that includes more than 10,000 companies and 150,000 workers who produce almost $3 billion worth of exports each year--$3 billion worth of exports each year--as well as a new patent office opening soon.

We want the next Facebook or iPhone or clean energy technology and breakthrough medical device to be built in our State or at least in America. That is why we create a new INVEST visa for foreign entrepreneurs who want to start new businesses here in the United States. A new category of visas proposed in our bill provides this investment opportunity. Immigrant entrepreneurs who have launched successful startups could stay or come and continue to create jobs and fuel our economy if they can show they have been backed financially.

We make it easier for foreign students who graduate with advanced degrees in STEM fields to get a green card--I know this has been of great interest to the Presiding Officer--and increase the number of H-1B visas. This will help us attract and retain highly skilled and educated talent to fill labor shortages in some of our fastest growing industries, including bioscience and computer engineering.

Our bill also creates a new--this is a lot to take in, I know, Mr. President, and I hope people will have the chance to study this. This is why I am so glad we took the time we did to negotiate this bill with the eight of us, but now it is going through the committee on which the Presiding Officer serves, the Judiciary Committee, to have hearings, to have a markup, to have everybody have their chance to offer--I think when I last heard, there were more than 300 amendments to the bill--to offer those amendments and then to get it to the floor where we can debate it. There is going to be time to do all this work, and this requires time to understand it.

Our bill creates a new W visa, a program for lesser skilled workers to come into the country. This, in addition to several other reforms that are made throughout our bill, will ensure that we can continue to fill our labor needs in sectors such as hospitality and our vibrant ski industry, which hosts 56.5 million visitors every year.

There was complete agreement among Democrats and Republicans who were meeting in this group that our visa system must protect American workers and prevent exploitation, such as requiring efforts, first, to recruit American workers. It also must be paired with a reliable, cost-effective employment verification system that prevents identity fraud, protects our civil liberties, and is critical to stopping future illegal immigration.

That is one of the key objectives of this legislation. We do not want to end up right where we are today, with 11 million undocumented people, and we have put the systems in place--including, very importantly, this employment verification system--to deal with that. We have had broad bipartisan support on this part for many years in this Congress, and it is now part of our legislation.

This all has to come with a determination to crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. Simply put, if we want to reduce illegal immigration, we need to make legal immigration a much more straightforward process in this country. That is one of the reasons I was glad to take part in the agriculture negotiations around this bill under the leadership of Senator Feinstein and with Senator Rubio and Senator Hatch. This bill alone is going to stabilize our agricultural workforce for years to come and is critical to protecting and growing our agricultural economy, which has a $40 billion economic impact in Colorado.

This bill provides a faster path to citizenship for agricultural workers to be able to do the important work of producing our Nation's food and fiber and, increasingly, our energy. It also creates a new streamlined program for agricultural guest workers that is more usable for employers while maintaining critical worker protections.

It is the first time we have had an ag jobs title of this bill that is endorsed by both the farm workers and the Farm Bureau. I thank them for taking part in these negotiations and for the willingness of both sides to give a little up for the greater good. Their example is one we should embrace as we go forward on this bill.

As I said earlier, I feel the same way about the bipartisan colleagues who worked on this bill. In crafting this bill, we all had to give a little--just a little--to get a lot. Each of us had to come to the table with our diverse perspective, representing different constituencies. We each would have written certain pieces differently were we left to our own devices, but this type of compromise needs to happen if you are crafting a bipartisan and complex bill to fix the immigration system in a country of 300 million people.

Every single member of the group was committed to working together to accomplish that goal. In particular, I wish to again thank Senators Schumer and McCain especially for driving this process forward. As the committee begins its important work, I would like to acknowledge the work and leadership of Chairman Leahy to see it through.

In the spirit of our partnership, I think it is important to remind ourselves, on an issue where emotions can run so high and so hot, that all of us are trying to do right by the American people, as each one of us sees it.

Every proposed path to citizenship is not amnesty, and this proposed path to citizenship is not amnesty. And every opponent of these reforms is not anti-immigrant. We need to do more to secure our borders, but we do not need to treat people trapped in a failed system as criminals.

These changes will be difficult. It is understandable that people worry about what this is going to mean for their jobs, their schools, their businesses. But if we just apply a very basic test--is it smart and it is right--then I am confident we can find common ground and move forward.

I would like to close with one last reflection on my own grandparents' experience. On my first birthday, which was November 28, 1965, my grandparents gave me a birthday card and sent me a gift. In that card, they wrote:

The ancient Greeks gave the world the high ideals of democracy in search of which your dear Mother and we came--

They wrote this in English, by the way. Remember, when they came to this country, they spoke none.

The ancient Greeks gave the world the high ideals of democracy in search of which your dear Mother and we came to the hospitable shores of beautiful America in 1950. We have been happy here ever since, beyond our greatest dreams and expectations, with Democracy, Freedom and Love and humanity's greatest treasures.

They continued:

We hope that when you grow up, you will [have a chance to help] to develop in other parts of the world a greater understanding of these American values.

Democracy and freedom and love, in my grandparents' view: humanity's greatest treasures, and they called them American values.

This is a lesson my wife Susan and I are now trying to teach our three little girls. Opportunity is indeed a precious gift this country will give each generation, asking only that they in turn not squander that inheritance but increase it and pass it along to the next. That is our responsibility as we consider this piece of legislation, and for that matter any other.

If history is any guide, someone waiting in line for a visa at this moment or someone waiting to enter what my grandparents called ``beautiful America'' will go on to become a brilliant artist or a talented surgeon or a path-breaking businessperson. Someone whose father picked grapes will grow up to found the next Apple. Someone operating a ski lift at Vail is going to be the parent or grandparent of a President or, God help us, of a Senator. That person will stand in our shoes a generation from now, and they will know whether we had the courage to do what was smart and what was right and what was hard.

Now is not the time to pat each other on the back. We have a long way to go, as the Presiding Officer knows. But what we do have is some momentum--I think a lot of momentum--and a balanced reasonable piece of legislation. There are going to be some difficult discussions and challenges ahead. There is no doubt about that. But what I know is if we use the efforts and insights of the Colorado Compact as a guide, we will arrive at that shared, sensible middle ground. We will pass legislation that is worthy of the great hope of my grandparents and the future generations in this country.

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


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