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Mr. COONS. Mr. President, I rise today to speak to the bill that will soon be before us, a bill to allow us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle the complex challenges facing us in comprehensive immigration reform.
Immigrants have always played a central role in America's history, in our economy, in our culture, in our success as a Nation. Their importance cannot be overstated, but the system that makes it possible for immigrants to come here and contribute to that role is clearly in need of fundamental repair. America's immigration system today is badly out of sync with our values, and I believe it is up to us in the current Congress to fix it.
The earnest work of the group of eight Senators, the so-called Gang of 8, has given us, in my view, a once-in-a-generation opportunity that we must embrace. We cannot squander this moment and allow partisan politics, fearmongering, and mischaracterization of the underlying bill to get in the way of what we must accomplish in order to mend the rich fabric of our country and create a predictable pathway for legal immigration going forward.
I rise today to reflect on this historic opportunity to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will make our country stronger, safer, and more vibrant for generations to come.
The legislation soon to be before this Chamber has earned such strong support in large part because it started as a bipartisan effort with Senators from both sides of the aisle and different regions of the country drawing upon their own years of experience to produce a first draft. It confronted a wide array of problems with our badly broken current immigration system. It wasn't perfect, but it was a strong start, and I am extraordinarily grateful to the group of these eight Senators who put so much time and effort into laying that groundwork.
In the Judiciary Committee, Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Grassley then led a markup, probably the first in my nearly 3 years here as a Senator, a full, robust, and historically open markup that achieved its goal of making the bill that comes before us stronger. They led an open and transparent process. They posted every proposed amendment online before the markup began so that each one could be thoughtfully considered by Senators, their staffs, and outside groups concerned about the bill.
The markup lasted 5 full days across 3 weeks, during which each Senator was permitted an unlimited opportunity to speak and offer amendments. This is the regular order of which so many more seasoned Senators speak with fondness, something more characteristic of the Senate's past than its present.
It led ultimately in the Judiciary Committee to 37 hours of markup debate. A great many of the amendments offered were accepted, Democratic amendments and Republican amendments. More than 300 amendments were filed. More than 200 amendments, if you consider first and second degree, were taken up, considered, and disposed of. More than 100 were offered by Democrats and Republicans. Ultimately, 136 of these amendments were adopted, all but 3 on a bipartisan basis. The bill was, as you know, ultimately reported out of committee with a healthy bipartisan vote of 13 to 5.
I am a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I too like all of my colleagues proposed amendments, studied my colleagues' amendments, debated those amendments, and ultimately I voted for this bill. I am proud of what the committee has accomplished.
I am proud that the bill is coming before us today, and it is stronger than the original bill, exactly because of the hard work done by the Judiciary Committee and the great leadership of our chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. It is stronger on border security. It is stronger when it comes to efficiency and using taxpayer dollars well, and it is stronger when it comes to fundamental fairness.
First, on border security, even the first draft of this bill offered by the bipartisan Gang of 8 contained historic levels of investment in improving border security. The bill's provisions to require control over the southern border and to mandate employment verification nationwide were already groundbreaking before the markup in the Judiciary Committee began.
Still, amendments were adopted in committee that strengthened these measures even further. Despite the protestations of some that this was a partisan or a lopsided markup, let me briefly detail some that were adopted that I think strengthened this provision of the bill.
Senator Grassley, Republican of Iowa, the ranking member, offered an amendment that expands the bill's border security goals and metrics to cover the entire southern border, so that all border communities will benefit from the enhanced security investments made by the bill, not just those that are considered high risk.
Senator Hatch, Republican from Utah, offered an amendment that will mandate biometric exit processing at airports, beginning at the 10 largest international airports in the United States and soon thereafter 20 additional airports.
The committee also adopted amendments to strengthen background requirements in the bill.
An amendment by Senator Flake of Arizona required those in RPI status to undergo additional security screenings when they apply to renew their status.
An amendment offered by Senator Graham requires additional national security screening for applicants from countries or regions that pose a national security threat to the United States or that harbor groups deemed to pose a national security threat.
Some in this Chamber have claimed this bill does not do enough to strengthen the security of our borders. That is simply and clearly not the case. This bill will make our country safer, and I believe it will make our country stronger.
In terms of efficiency, something we talk about a great deal in the budget climate today, the amendments considered during markup also resulted in substantive changes to the efficiency of our immigration system and to the implementation of the changes demanded by this bill. Already the bill as drafted makes important steps to clear the long backlogs of immigrants waiting for green cards who already have been approved by the Department of Homeland Security. Removing the senseless, current, per-country caps is one part of the solution I am proud to see in this bill.
One of my adopted amendments will streamline, for example, discovery procedures in immigration court to cut down on the needless cost of responding to each and every discovery request currently done through the less efficient Freedom of Information Act rather than a discovery process more typical in court proceedings.
Senator Grassley offered amendments that required audits of the comprehensive immigration reform trust fund established by the bill and of all entities that receive grants under this bill. These amendments will ensure the significant cost of enhanced border security is spent efficiently and appropriately.
Senators LEAHY and CORNYN offered an amendment that gives the Department of Homeland Security flexibility with respect to the fence strategy fund to leverage the best technology at our disposal to achieve that task. The amendment also requires consultation with relevant stakeholders and respect for State and local laws in the implementation of fencing projects.
Democrats and Republicans, coming together, working together, made this bill stronger. We did it in the Judiciary Committee, and we can do it here on the floor of the Senate.
Last, America's immigration system should reflect America's fundamental values, and right now, in my view, it clearly does not.
This bill does make our immigration detention and court systems fairer and more humane, but it does not fix all of the unfairness in our current system. Indeed, there are some painful sacrifices we have had to make in this bill, especially when it comes to families being united, families with their siblings, or the recognition of mixed-status LGBT families in our country who receive no Federal protection under this bill. But the Judiciary Committee did make progress in making the bill fairer on some fronts.
An amendment from Senator Blumenthal will allow DREAMers serving in the U.S. military to apply for citizenship on the same terms as those under current law.
The committee also adopted an amendment that I cosponsored with Senator Lee to ensure individuals are notified when their name receives a nonconfirmation determination or further action notice in the E-Verify system--a protection for vital privacy concerns.
Two of Senator Franken's amendments will make the E-Verify system fairer for small businesses by ensuring they won't be penalized excessively for innocent noncompliance. They will also provide incentives to keep the error rate as low as possible.
What we have now before us is a bill that has been thoroughly vetted, substantially amended, and supported by the broadest coalition ever before seen in comprehensive immigration reform efforts.
This bill strengthens border security.
This bill creates a path to legal status and strikes the right balance to encourage those here who are undocumented to come out of the shadows, comply with law, pay a fine, pay taxes, and become full participants in our national society and restore the primacy of the rule of law.
This bill makes advancements in worker protection. Through enhanced employment verification, we strike at one of the most pervasive problems for American labor: the widespread hiring of undocumented labor at substandard wages and working conditions.
This bill will have immediate and significant benefits for our economy. We should always remember that immigration has been and will continue
to be a real boom, a lifeblood to our Nation's economy along all points of the labor spectrum. In addition to bringing millions out of the shadows and welcoming them as full participants in our society and economy, this bill will go a long way toward fixing our current backward-looking policies toward high-skilled immigrants who want to remain in the United States after receiving their advanced education.
In conclusion, I am proud of what this bill means for our country and what it has shown about our ability in the Senate to work together to advance meaningful changes to improve our Nation. There are no perfect laws, but considering just how broken our immigration system is now, it is unquestionably a giant leap forward. I am confident that if we can continue to work together on the floor here as we did in the Judiciary Committee, we will be able to find more common ground and continue to strengthen this bill in the upcoming weeks. We can make the most of this historic opportunity and finally build a modern immigration system that reflects America's values and makes our country strong.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that time during the quorum call be charged equally to both sides.
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Mr. COONS. I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.
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