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Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. LEAHY. Thank you, Senator Rockefeller. The issues we are discussing today are extremely important, and I appreciate your leadership during CHIPRA to allow States to extend Medicaid and CHIP benefits to pregnant women and children in the first place.

Last week, I came to the floor to express my opposition to amendments that were designed to punish immigrant families who are living on the verge of poverty by preventing them from accessing our Federal safety net. The Judiciary Committee refused to add many of these amendments to the bill, and I am pleased that the Senate heeded my call to reject the harshest of these amendments as well.

Now, I would like to repeat something that Senator Rockefeller just said. The bipartisan immigration reform bill explicitly states that children and pregnant women granted RPI, Blue Card, and V-visa status are considered ``lawfully present'' in the United States. It is true that the bill contains language making these three categories of immigrants ineligible for ``any Federal means-tested public benefits'' as ``defined and implemented'' in section 403 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,--PRWORA, the Federal law that limits some noncitizens' eligibility for certain Federal programs. However, this language does not eliminate the States' right to exercise the ICHIA option.


Mr. LEAHY. Yes, that is correct. Nor was it our intention throughout the negotiations to eliminate this State right.


Mr. LEAHY. Senator Rockefeller is correct. The Senate had full knowledge of CBO's interpretation and cost estimate when it negotiated a bipartisan amendment that became the text of the final bill. We chose not to modify the provisions relating to the application of benefits under PRWORA, thus retaining the language that permits coverage under ICHIA of individuals with RPI, Blue Card, or V-visa status.

During the negotiations, the Senate did accept an amendment which states that ``No officer or employee of the Federal Government may waive'' compliance with PRWORA, or the bill's prohibition on accessing benefits that are defined and implemented in PRWORA. But these provisions, too, are inapplicable to a State's option under ICHIA. As my colleague Senator Rockefeller mentioned before, the ICHIA option is not a product of PRWORA. It exists as an independent right under the Social Security Act and is therefore unaffected by this section.


Mr. LEAHY. I would like to point to one final, yet unfortunate, indication of the Senate's intent to preserve benefits under Medicaid and CHIP for children and pregnant women granted RPI, Blue Card, and V-visa status--section 4417. This section was added during negotiations on the amendment that became the final text of the bill. It directly amends ICHIA to prohibit States from covering certain individuals who are lawfully present in the United States on student and tourist visas. Had the Senate intended to similarly exclude from ICHIA individuals granted RPI, Blue Card, and V-visa status, it would have explicitly done so.


Mr. LEAHY. I thank the Senators from Maine for raising this issue. I would be glad to clarify that the intent of the legislation is not to exclude logging employment as defined in title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations in section 655.103(c)(4) from the definition of ``agriculture employment'' for purposes of the new W agricultural visa, which will eventually replace the H-2A program. Consequently, logging employment would be covered in the definition of ``agricultural employment'' for purposes of the new W agricultural visa program. I also understand from Senator Feinstein, the author of these provisions, that it was not the intent of the measure to exclude logging employment from the new W visa program for agricultural workers.


Mr. LEAHY. I thank the distinguished Senator for his comments. He also deserves credit. We worked very closely together on this schedule and everything else to make sure all people were heard, as the Senate completes its work on this historic legislation, I want to recognize Senators and staff members who were instrumental to our effort.

Senator Durbin, who has championed the DREAM Act for many years, deserves special recognition. I commend him as the Senate approves his hard-fought effort that is included in this bill. Senator Durbin has helped to bring these compelling stories out of the shadows. He has been dedicated to the young people who will be helped by his legislation, like Gaby Pacheco. These brave and patriotic DREAMers have inspired all of us who support the bill's passage.

Senator Schumer's tenacity and commitment to this effort should be commended. He worked hard to build bipartisan support and was relentless in his advocacy for passage. Senator Menendez fought hard to protect the principles that make this legislation something we can be proud of. Senator Bennett and Senator Feinstein were committed to our agreement between agricultural workers and employers that is fair and that will help America's farmers and farm workers.

Senator McCain, Senator Flake, Senator Graham, and Senator Rubio bravely led the Republican Senators throughout this process. I appreciate that their leadership has been a challenge in their caucus. I thank Senator McConnell for his advice as the Judiciary Committee prepared to consider this legislation.

And I thank Senator Whitehouse, Senator Coons, Senator Blumenthal, Senator Klobuchar, and Senator Franken for their work in the Judiciary Committee and for their amendments to make this legislation better. I especially thank Senator Hirono for her personal efforts and determination to make sure that the interests of women and families were protected in this legislation. All of these Senators deserve recognition for their dedication.

The work of the Senate could not be successful without the staff members who work behind the scenes. The work of our staff is especially important when the Senate considers legislation of the magnitude that we have completed today. I take a few moments to recognize the many staff members who contributed to this legislation.

I want to recognize and give my thanks to Bruce Cohen and Kristine Lucius. My former Chief Counsel and Staff Director Bruce Cohen, who is well known to many Senators, has been at my side for nearly 20 years. Though Bruce is leaving the Senate, his mark is on this legislation and he leaves his mark on the Senate Judiciary Committee after years of service. His dedication to the Senate, to the people of Vermont, and the United States has been of the highest caliber and he will be missed.

Kristine Lucius, who has so ably and seamlessly taken over as my Chief Counsel and Staff Director on the Judiciary Committee has proven herself many times over during the Judiciary Committee's markup of this legislation, and through the Senate's debate of this legislation. Without her leadership, instincts, and intellect, our Committee process would not have been the example of democracy that it was. Both Bruce and Kristine deserve my deepest gratitude.

My Chief of Staff, JP Dowd and my Legislative Director Erica Chabot were central to this process. In addition to leading my office, JP guided my entire staff with a steady hand as we considered this legislation. And in addition to coordinating the legislative work of my office, Erica made great contributions to the process this legislation followed through the Committee. Erica's work was only interrupted by the arrival of a baby boy on June 21st.

I thank Adrienne Wojciechowski, Tom Berry, Susan Sussman, Diane Derby, and John Tracy for relating this complex bill to Vermont priorities. Their outreach to Vermont farmers, business owners, law enforcement officials, and Vermonters impacted by our broken immigration system was crucial to my priorities in this bill.

And our work in the Committee could not have been conducted without the incredible efforts of our Chief Clerk Roslyne Turner, Deputy Clerk Theresa Reuss, Hearing Clerk Melanie Kartzmer, and former Hearing Clerk Halley Ross, all of whom make our committee run at the highest standard.

And I thank Brian Hockin, who keeps the Committee's technology running and provided real-time updates during our five Committee markups by posting amendments online as they were modified. I give them my thanks and appreciation for their role in making the Judiciary Committee so productive and transparent.

I want to thank my staff members who worked long and hard on this legislation. My Judiciary Committee counsels Matt Virkstis, John Amaya, Chris Leopold, Alexandra Reeve-Givens, Josh Hsu, April Carson, Emily Livingston, Lara Flint, and Anya McMurray all committed themselves to this process with professionalism and dedication to advancing this important legislation. My team of lawyers carefully negotiated, reviewed, and drafted thousands of pages of amendments. They worked across the aisle to create consensus and improve our proposal.

I thank the Committee's Legislative Staff Assistants Emma Van Susteren, Charles Smith, Kelsey Kobelt, and Clark Flynt for their commitment and passion to making this process run smoothly. And I thank my Communications Director David Carle and my Judiciary Committee Press Secretary Jessica Brady for helping to make our process a transparent one and to tell the story of the Senate's consideration of this legislation.

The staff members of Senators in the group of eight who serve on the Judiciary Committee deserve recognition. Joe Zogby, Mara Silver, Leon Fresco, Stephanie Martz, Chandler Morse, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sergio Sarkany served the Senate well.

I want to recognize the staff of the Judiciary Committee's Ranking Member Senator Grassley, Kolan Davis and Kathy Nuebel. They served Senator Grassley and the Senate with weeks of tireless effort to make our committee process a productive one. I thank Ranking Member Grassley for his cooperation during the Committee's consideration of this legislation.

The floor staff that keep the Senate running deserve special recognition and thanks. The Democratic Secretary Gary Myrick, Assistant Secretary Tim Mitchell, and Reema Dodin serve the Senate admirably and their assistance to Senators is indispensable. The Majority Leader's staff members Bill Dauster and Serena Hoy lent their broad experience and expertise to this process. I thank them all.

I thank the members of President Obama's staff who provided invaluable technical expertise and assistance to the Senate. My former Chief of Staff, Ed Pagano, along with Miguel Rodriguez, led a tremendous effort in the Senate for the President. The President's Director of the White House Policy Council Cecilia Munoz and her team, Felicia Escobar and Tyler Moran were instrumental in this effort.

And I want to especially thank Esther Olavarria. Esther served Senator Kennedy for many years on the Judiciary Committee, and has lent her intellect, her vast knowledge of immigration law, and her genuine sense of humanity to previous efforts in the Senate. I know Senator Kennedy would be very proud of her service to the President.

Finally, I want to recognize the tremendous work done by the Office of the Senate Legislative Counsel. They are the attorneys who serve the United States Senate to turn ideas into legislative text. I especially thank Matt McGhie and Stephanie Easley who moved mountains to meet the requests from Senate offices to draft this legislation. I thank them and all of the attorneys and staff in that office who serve all Senators with tremendous professionalism and skill.

Many other staff members in the Senate contributed to this effort in ways that will be largely unheralded by the public. But it is important to recognize the role that the dedicated men and women who serve Senators play in doing the business of the American people. Their work behind the scenes on this historic bill allowed Members to agree in principle and make their compromise a meaningful reality.

I am proud of the Senate's work today and I thank everyone who made this process a successful one.

Our American story is a story of immigration. It is not only our history, it is our future. Over the last few weeks, many of us have spoken about our own families' immigration stories. We all have such stories. I heard the distinguished Democratic whip, Senator Durbin, speak of the very moving story of his family and also what he has done with DREAMers. We have talked about our parents and grandparents seeking better lives for us. We can all relate to the most compelling, innate urge to sacrifice for the ones we love.

We are inspired by our forebears who wished better lives for us and for themselves, and found those opportunities here in America. They taught us the fundamental values of family, hard work, and fairness. With this legislation, we honor those American values. We honor their search for freedom, for prosperity, and for the promise that America has held out to so many for so long.

I am proud to be a Member of the Senate. Today is a good day for the Senate, and, more importantly, it is a good day for the country. Today, with the help of many Senators, we will address a complex problem that is hurting our families, stifling our economy, and threatening our security.

Several months ago four Democrats and four Republicans began negotiating and drafting immigration reform legislation. They produced a carefully balanced, fair, and humane proposal that at its core is intended to make meaningful improvements to border security and, most importantly, will help millions of people who dream the same dreams our ancestors did.

I am proud of the role the Judiciary Committee has played in this process, and I thank the Senators of both parties who have praised that role.

In late April, with the full participation of all 18 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with unprecedented transparency, and with fairness to all members in offering amendments and having the chance to debate them, we held several public markups to consider that legislation. Over 37 hours during the course of 3 weeks, we engaged in vigorous debate in full view of the American public. We considered 212 amendments from Democrats and Republicans. We approved 136 amendments in a room filled with spectators on both sides of the issue. Of the amendments approved in committee, 47 were Republican amendments and all but three were adopted with bipartisan support. Even the staunchest opponents of this legislation have praised that fairness.

The world has never seen such a vibrant, cohesive, economically exuberant, and democratically successful experiment as our country. Every one of us as Americans should be proud of that.

A key ingredient of our successful formula has been and will continue to be immigrants anxious to be part of the American experience. They have helped us to be a Nation in constant renewal, welcoming and using this constant influx of fresh talent and energy. Just as my grandparents and my wife Marcelle's parents made Vermont and America better, they have made us better.

Today is another historic day in the Senate. The Senate will soon complete its work on remedies for a difficult and complex set of issues that has eluded us for years. We passed immigration reform legislation in 2006 under the leadership of the distinguished Presiding Officer's predecessor, Senator Ted Kennedy. After the Senate's work, the House of Representatives declined to take up the Senate bill. I hope that won't happen again. This issue is far too important to ignore or to allow it to languish. We shouldn't play politics with what is quintessentially an American issue.

At this moment I would like to think my dear friend Senator Kennedy is smiling down on this Chamber. He sat right over there. He would be overjoyed to see us pass this legislation on an issue he cared about so deeply. I would like to think our old friend would be proud of what we are doing.

In a very few minutes the Senate will vote to pass a comprehensive solution to our broken immigration system. It will reunite families. It will bring millions of people out of the shadows and into our legal system. It will spur job growth and reduce our deficit. It will make us safer.

I would urge all Senators to join with us to ensure a bright future for this great Nation we all love by passing comprehensive immigration reform. In doing so, you make us an even greater Nation than we are.

I yield the floor.


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