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Senate Opens Debate on Bipartisan Immigration Package

May 21, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, Congress and the immigration debate, making illegal workers legal. We start with NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: Several Republican senators came to the floor this afternoon to pledge they will not support an immigration bill that looks anything like the much-celebrated bipartisan compromise reached last week by their colleagues.

Alabama’s Jeff Sessions.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: The time is right for comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate, however, in my view, is not ready for debate today. The plan as we are moving today is unwise.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, the massive immigration proposal unveiled Thursday by senators from both parties has come under sharp criticism on several fronts. For instance, many of those advocating strict border enforcement as a priority believe offering a path to citizenship to the 12 million immigrants now in this country illegally amounts to amnesty.

House Republican Brian Bilbray of California spoke on CNN yesterday.

REP. BRIAN BILBRAY (R), California: The worst thing you can do if you try to control the illegal immigration is reward 12 to 20 million illegal aliens with citizenship and permanent residency.

KWAME HOLMAN: Immigrants’ rights advocates also are unhappy with two other components of the plan. One would skew the method by which green cards are awarded, favoring those with advanced skills, college degrees, and English-speaking ability over those with traditional family ties.

Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza.

CECILIA MUNOZ, National Council of La Raza: The categories that they’re proposing to get rid of are the categories that allow Americans, like me and you, to bring in their adult children and their brothers and sisters. And I’m really not sure that it’s politically wise to say to the American people, “Total strangers are of more value to us than your own children, your own family members.”

KWAME HOLMAN: The pro-immigrant community also takes issue with the plan’s guest-worker program, which would allow temporary entry by 400,000 foreign nationals annually, but with no path to citizenship.

Meanwhile, some employers argue the plan would require them to verify — using a government database — that all of their employees are legally eligible to work in the United States. Current penalties for employing undocumented workers would be increased.

But late this afternoon, Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar came to the Senate floor to plead with his colleagues to give the compromise bill a chance.

SEN. KEN SALAZAR (D), Colorado: At the end of the day, this bipartisan proposal, which we have put on the table, will allow us, first of all, to secure our borders. It will allow us to make sure that we’re enforcing our laws here in the United States of America. And, third of all, it will deal in a realistic and humane manner with the economic realities that face our businesses and our workers here in America today.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators will be given the chance to change provisions of the bipartisan immigration plan through amendments debated and voted on throughout the week.

The path to citizenship

Angela Kelley
National Immigration Forum
We have 12 million people here living in the shadows. And in today's post-9/11 world, it is simply not tenable to not know who's in this country. We need a solution.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, two views on what may be the major sticking point in the compromise immigration bill: the path to citizenship.

Angela Kelley is deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which promotes immigration. And Jessica Vaughan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates reduced immigration.

And, Angela Kelley, this afternoon's debate featured many senators just calling this flat-out an amnesty bill. Is it?

ANGELA KELLEY, National Immigration Forum: No, Ray, I think it's actually not an amnesty. I think it's an answer. I think it's a solution that's long overdue to a pressing domestic problem.

We have 12 million people here living in the shadows. And in today's post-9/11 world, it is simply not tenable to not know who's in this country. We need a solution, where people will come forward, where they will register, where we will have a chance to screen them, make sure that they're working. And over time -- and it's a long path -- where they show they're learning English about learning about this nation's history and civics, give them a chance to belong.

We think it's the only solution that makes sense, because, clearly, they're not going to leave the U.S. They're making contributions. So we think that lawmakers are onto something. We welcome the debate and expect that there will be a resolution this year.

RAY SUAREZ: Jessica Vaughan, is this an amnesty bill?

JESSICA VAUGHAN, Center for Immigration Studies: Oh, of course it's an amnesty. It provides instant amnesty to people who have been living here illegally for years, and to about 12 million of them, at least. So it's most definitely an amnesty. It gives them exactly what they came here to get, permission to work here, live here, get a library card, get a driver's license.

RAY SUAREZ: But as Angela Kelley pointed out, it is a long road. It does bring forward, so you know who they are and where they are. And there are some penalties built into the proposals that the proponents say makes this not just a free pass, a ticket into the country, but a process.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Well, there's not much process, because the illegal aliens who are living here now would gain instant probationary status, legal status. So they get to keep doing what they're been doing all this time.

A broad definition

Jessica Vaughan
Center for Immigration Studies
[T]his bill certainly isn't a good choice whatsoever. It doesn't provide us with anymore safety or security in the country. All it does is legalize 12 million people who are here illegally.

RAY SUAREZ: In the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the last time we tried to handle this problem, it wasn't an expansive definition of who could stay and who could apply. There were some pretty specific requirements put down, including five years demonstrable residence in the United States. But this time, they've used a very expansive definition of who can stay and when you stop the clock.

ANGELA KELLEY: Yeah, I think lawmakers are actually trying to capture as big a universe as they can of people who are here illegally, because lawmakers know that we need a practical, workable solution that brings as many people as possible out of the shadows for our nation's security sake and for our stronger economy, so we know who's here.

RAY SUAREZ: So they're saying that more expansive definition is a necessary part for this thing to work?

ANGELA KELLEY: Absolutely, Ray. If we say arbitrarily five years back, you can be part of the program, but the next day, if you're after that cut-off, you can't be, then that means that we've got millions of people who are going to be outside the program. We've tried that, and it failed.

Clearly, we need to be tough. We need to know who is in this country. This isn't an instant green card giveaway. This is a very long and tough road.

The information we get on these people is who is here. The information we get is taxes that they have to start paying. The information that we get puts them on the road on residency, over an eight-year period. Some will begin to get green cards. They won't all have them for 13 years.

But what we get is security in knowing who's in this country. What we get is knowledge that they're being taxed. What we get are employers who are going to have to follow the law and can't circumvent and start hiring illegal people. It is an extraordinary possibility now that lawmakers are on the brink of finally having a handle on who's in this country.

What's the alternative, Ray? We deport 12 million people? We spend $240 billion a year over the next five years to do that? That's more than the DHS budget.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me ask Jessica Vaughan what the alternatives are.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Well, this bill certainly isn't a good choice whatsoever. It doesn't provide us with anymore safety or security in the country. All it does is legalize 12 million people who are here illegally. It supercharges illegal immigration and provides us with huge, new guest-worker programs.

It's not what the American people want at all, but the American public...

Making it harder to work legally

Angela Kelley
National Immigration Forum
We have more boots and binoculars at the border than we've ever had, and we have the biggest undocumented population we've ever had.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, taking a look at that broad capture of the 12 million people, with very few restrictions that are on them in order to stay, what would your organization have done differently in addressing this very large group of people?

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Well, what we need to do is make it impossible for illegal aliens to find work legally. And we need to cut off the job magnet and eventually people -- and make it impossible for people to get driver's licenses, to live here as if they were legal.

If we simply enforce the laws that we have on the books already -- and that doesn't require any new legislation -- people are eventually going to give up and go home on their own. And that's what the American people most definitely wants to see happen.

RAY SUAREZ: So you're saying, reduce the number of people first, and then address them through some package?

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Right. All we need to do is enforce the laws that we have, and we'll see a big difference in the size of the illegal community.

RAY SUAREZ: Angela Kelley, why not do that?

ANGELA KELLEY: Yes, I have to respectfully disagree. That's what we've been doing for the last dozen years. We have more boots and binoculars at the border than we've ever had, and we have the biggest undocumented population we've ever had. We have more employers...

RAY SUAREZ: No, but to be fair, Jessica Vaughan is not saying that it's Border Patrol agents that are going to do this. It's going to be life in America where it's just not easy to be here illegally anymore, and people will, in effect, self-deport. They'll take themselves home.

ANGELA KELLEY: Yes, I understand the tactic, and I can tell you that it doesn't work. In Virginia, people can't get driver's licenses, so they go to Maryland. In one town in Dallas, Texas, they just passed an ordinance saying that you can't rent an apartment, so they'll just go to the next town to rent an apartment.

I mean, what we have right now is a crisis in the localities, because you've got 50 different states trying to come up with 50 different laws. And it's at the states and localities where we really need to have a uniform immigration policy coming from the federal government so that we know who's here, so that we have a transparent system.

We have much to gain by registering these people. We have much to gain by making employers follow the law. And Congress is on the brink of addressing this very important domestic problem with a solution.

With all due respect to your other guest, what has been tried for the last many years has failed. There is no solution on the books that we could just enforce our way out of the problem somehow. We can't keep throwing money at the problem.

Instead, what we need to do is be real, that we've got three million U.S. citizen kids with one or two parents that are undocumented. We have 5 percent of the U.S. workforce that is undocumented. We have folks that are in construction, in landscaping, probably working in this building, taking care of our elderly, taking care of our babies. And it is time that we know who they are, we start making sure they pay taxes, and over time give them a chance to belong.

States, cities pass tougher laws

Jessica Vaughan
Center for Immigration Studies
[States and localities are] starting to enact laws on their own in ways that they can use their own authority to make a difference in the problem. And it's starting to work, from what we've heard.

RAY SUAREZ: Could you really deal with the problem, as you both see it, by simply making this a more inhospitable place to be for people who are working in the country illegally?

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Absolutely. That's what's happening already, because the states and localities who are frustrated with the federal government's failure to address the problem. And I disagree: We haven't tried enforcement yet. We haven't tried it for many years.

They're starting to enact laws on their own in ways that they can use their own authority to make a difference in the problem. And it's starting to work, from what we've heard.

This proposal is neither practical, nor realistic, nor even tough. It doesn't make us any more secure, because all we're going to know about the people who gain status is what they tell us. We're not going to have any opportunity to actually screen people, to see if they even qualify. It's completely unrealistic to think that the agency that's going to have to process all of these applications is going to be able to do it.

I mean, last year was a banner year, in terms of production for USCIS, the immigration agency that processes applications. And they were able to do 7 million applications last year. We're talking about having -- they're going to have to process, not only 12 million illegal aliens who get instant amnesty, but also the at least 400,000-some additional green cards, and probably 400,000 or 500,000 additional guest workers each year.

RAY SUAREZ: Let's quickly look at the family unification part of the bill. If you allow all the people who are here already to stay, and follow with what's proposed in the package, how many more people are we talking about eventually getting here, children, parents, siblings?

ANGELA KELLEY: The people in the future will actually be very limited, because they eliminate many of the family categories. So who will be able to come in the future are spouses, and minor children, and some parents, parents of U.S. citizens and spouses of minor children of U.S. citizens. Spouses and minor children of green card holders will have a long wait. The other family categories will be eliminated, so it will be the closest of family members.

RAY SUAREZ: And how many extra people are we talking about, beyond the 12 million, if we follow that formula?

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Well, there are about -- we're probably talking in excess of 7 million people who are now on the waiting list who have family members already here who have applied for them, but demand far exceeds our capacity and the number we've decided to accept in our regular immigration program.

So there are more than 7 million people, we believe, that are attached to those applications. And we've got to wait for those people to be processed before any of these changes, this so-called rebalancing, would even come into effect, so that's eight years down the road, if it happens at all.

RAY SUAREZ: We'll be looking at many other component pieces of this proposal. Jessica Vaughan, Angela Kelley, thank you both.

ANGELA KELLEY: Thank you.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Thank you.