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Senate Debates Family Ties Provision in Immigration Bill

June 5, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: As the Senate entered the second week of debate on a bill overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, its chief Democratic architect, Edward Kennedy, expressed doubt about whether the fragile bipartisan coalition that put the legislation together would stay together.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: We’re obviously concerned. It’s a very — a lot of emotions on these issues. And I think, as we have seen in the last debate, a lot of these votes are decided by one or two votes. So we just have to sort of wait and see.

KWAME HOLMAN: One of the most contentious elements of the bill is a proposal to issue 380,000 visas per year determined by a new merit-based system rather than traditional family ties. Those wishing to enter the country would be awarded points based on employment qualifications, such as education, job skills, and English-language proficiency.

But Colorado Republican Wayne Allard opposed one provision that would allow many of the agricultural workers already in the country illegally to get extra points for their previous work here, for owning a home, and for having health insurance.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD (R), Colorado: This supplemental schedule rewards people who enter the country illegally. Worse yet, it disadvantages other qualified people who seek to enter this country legally.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Senator Kennedy defended the bill as written, saying many of those who live here illegally have worked tremendously hard and deserve to be rewarded with the same consideration as those who will enter legally in the future.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: But at the end of that time, what this legislation says to those people that have been a part of our whole kind of a system and that will have some opportunity to get a good deal of credit for working in agriculture here, here in America. And the amendment of the senator from Colorado strikes that provision.

KWAME HOLMAN: And in the end, the Allard amendment failed.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez and Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel proposed increasing the number of legal immigrants eligible for green cards under the existing family-based system. Their amendment would accept green card applications made before January 1, 2007, rather than May 2005, as called for in the proposed bill. That would put green cards in the hands of an additional 800,000 immigrants.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: That means more people would be included, but that should be the essence of what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to clean up a backlog. We’re trying to put in place a new workable, responsible system, and I think this amendment that Senator Menendez and I will offer helps do that.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, a member of the coalition that crafted the compromised bill, said changing the cut-off date would be a mistake.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), Georgia: And I understand that it will eliminate a lot of people from being eligible for green cards, but all I can say is, they can go to the back of the line, make application like everybody else, and if they qualify, so be it. But we needed a cut-off date. We’ve got one, and I’m opposed to changing that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Many Republicans argue for debating the immigration bill into next week, but Majority Leader Harry Reid said this afternoon he plans to finish it by Friday.

More than 100 amendments

Sen. Robert Menendez
D-New Jersey
I think that a core value in our immigration system, which is family reunification, has been dramatically undermined.

JIM LEHRER: And to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: So what are the chances that the Senate's compromise immigration bill can survive? For that, we're joined by Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona, one of the chief architects of the compromise bill, and Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who, as we heard from Kwame, is working hard to amend it.

Welcome, gentlemen.

SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Kyl, today the majority leader, Harry Reid, said that he was planning to force a vote as soon as possible on this, the term known on the Hill as cloture. Can your bill survive this?

SEN. JON KYL: Well, cloture will not be invoked right now, because we haven't had nearly enough time to get the amendments up, and debate it, and voted on that are needed by both sides in order to complete the work on the bill. We've only had about one week of work on what is probably one of the most historic, and complex, and difficult, and emotional pieces of legislation that the U.S. Senate has considered in years.

And I would say that, 10 years from now, no one would know whether we took an extra two or three days to get it done and to get it done right. But right now, we know we need that extra time to get these amendments considered.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Kyl, how many amendments are hanging fire? And how many have to be acted on, in what amount of time, before there's some sort of action?

SEN. JON KYL: There are over 100 amendments filed. Ordinarily, what happens is that we sit down and work out an agreement to consolidate those amendments, see which ones can be accepted, and then get a list of maybe 20 or 30 that are the real amendments that have to be voted on. Last year, when we went through this same exercise, after voting on several amendments, we got the list down to 20 additional. And that's what we went with before we finished the bill.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Menendez, you were once part of this group which talked about coming to some sort of agreement. You pulled out of the grand bargainers, as you're known, and you have your own ideas of fixes. What do you think should stay in this bill and what should go?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), New Jersey: Well, I think the core principles of, you know, tough border protection, employment verification, a guest-worker program, and a pathway to earned legalization are all good elements of the program.

However, in the process of doing that, I think that a core value in our immigration system, which is family reunification, has been dramatically undermined, particularly the right existing today of a United States citizen to have applied, having applied for their family member abroad, waiting under the law, obeying the rules, and having had their application submitted, and very possibly been approved, as well. And now we snuff out their right almost two years before we give rights to individuals who didn't follow the law, obey the rules, and came to the country in an undocumented fashion. So I believe we should change that.

And I also believe that, in the point system, we can live within the grand bargain of the point system and give more points for the purposes of skills, but it seems to me that family reunification should have a greater value and not a threshold amount necessary, as the bill determines right now, before they get points necessary to be able to have a fighting chance to be considered for future immigration to the country.

Awarding points for job skills

Sen. Jon Kyl
We need to get a little bit more aligned with some of these countries to compete in the global marketplace to attract more high- skilled workers.

GWEN IFILL: Allow me, Senator, to explain for people who haven't been following every jot and tittle at this bill what you're talking about when you say a point system. Certain people would be awarded benefits, if they were engineers, or if they were people who had job benefits and skills, which would maybe put them ahead, say, of people who had agricultural skills or people who had a daughter, say, instead of someone -- an engineer husband, that sort of thing. There would be a different way of adding up who was worthy of gaining this legal status?


GWEN IFILL: Other countries do that. What's wrong with the United States doing that?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: No, there's nothing wrong with it. The only question is, on a 100-point system, is family reunification not worth 15 points, without having to meet a threshold? Is that worth 15 points right off the top?

I've heard a lot about family values in a variety of debates here in the Senate and the Congress. It seems to me that family values are strengthened when we have families together, when we have reunification. When strong families are together, we have strong communities.

So we can have a point system that gives the greatest bulk of the points to skills but also gives, you know, a number of points as it relates to families and that I think preserves a critical ideal.

You know, under this bill as it exists right now, Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his family never would have come to this country. For that fact, neither would have my family come to this country.

I would like to think that along those lines, and many others, they've made positive contributions to this country. So we shouldn't be looking simply that you have to have an engineer or a rocket scientist to be able to come to America. There's a lot of significant contributions that have been made by others.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Senator Kyl about that. Is what Senator Menendez suggests a deal-breaker, in your opinion?

SEN. JON KYL: Well, it's not going to pass. Let me be real clear, that this is still a very family-friendly piece of legislation. Today, unlike other countries, like Australia and Canada, where about 24 percent or 27 percent of the people come into those countries on family-based visas, in the United States, it's about 62 percent. We need to get a little bit more aligned with some of these countries to compete in the global marketplace to attract more high- skilled workers.

Large number of family-based visas

Sen. Robert Menendez
D-New Jersey
The very essence of one of the key elements of the grand bargain, which is to provide a pathway to earn legalization after a very arduous process, with very stiff fines and high requirements, would be undermined dramatically.

GWEN IFILL: You started by saying that -- pardon.

SEN. JON KYL: If I could just finish this point, Gwen. It's very important. We're not taking away from family. Every spouse and minor children of a legal permanent resident or citizen can come into the country almost immediately.

For eight years, we're going to have 74 percent of the visas issued from the United States as family-based visas. And these are extended-family-based visas in many cases. And after that eight-year period, still over half of the visas will be family-based visas. And during that first eight years, only 11 percent will be work visas.

So, yes, we have a point system to try to bring in the best and the brightest to compete in the global marketplace, but in no way are we reducing to an unacceptably low level the number of family visas. They'll still be, by far and away, the majority.

GWEN IFILL: I'm sorry for interrupting you. I just wanted to -- you said at the outset that Senator Menendez's idea is not going to pass. I wondered why?

SEN. JON KYL: It would undo the -- there are two key principles that we tried to apply here. Number one, we wanted to end the chain migration. That's not your spouse and minor children. That's like a sibling or another relative who then brings in their relatives, and then they bring in their relatives. And we didn't want the people who are here illegally today to become citizens and then be able to chain migrate the rest of their family in.

The other principle that we wanted to apply was that we did want to give greater credibility to a good education, and a good skill, and health care, or science, or technology, so that, if you come in on a work visa, you're more likely to contribute to the United States' economy and our global competitiveness. But as I said, we are still weighted far more to the family side than the countries with whom we're competing.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Menendez, one of amendments that will apparently be debated tomorrow morning is one by John Cornyn of Texas, which kind of redefines what criminality is in order for people to qualify to stay in this country, including, for instance, if part of your criminal record involved trying to stay in this country, violating immigration rules.

Do you think that that's an amendment that should be supported? And if it is, if for some reason it does become part of this bill, is it still a bill you can support?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, I'd love to hear Senator Kyl to see if he thinks that's a killer amendment. In my mind, the reality is, is that the Cornyn amendment, while he paints one picture of it, certainly we should, for example, anyone who's committed a crime, we should certainly not have them get any rights. And we should ultimately deport them. There's no doubt about that.

But the way he has his amendment, it will catch an enormous part of the undocumented population that supposedly will have a pathway to earn legalization under this bill. So by the way he has drafted his amendment, simply staying in the country in an undocumented fashion would largely expose you to the possibility that you might very well be deported.

Therefore, the very essence of one of the key elements of the grand bargain, which is to provide a pathway to earn legalization after a very arduous process, with very stiff fines and high requirements, would be undermined dramatically. So I would think that that would be clearly a killer amendment.

You know, a killer amendment, in my mind, is when you just don't want to see comprehensive immigration reform passed versus when you have an idea as to how to improve it.

A very fragile state

Sen. Jon Kyl
There may be a kernel of a good idea in each of these amendments, but in order to try to remain true to the basic bipartisan consensus that was developed, I think it's important that those elements of the agreement remain intact.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me do what you suggested and ask Senator Kyl about that, because it seems that, if Senator Menendez's ideas are not going to pass, or could be considered killer amendments by some, and Senator Cornyn's ideas, which are at the other end of the spectrum, might be considered killer amendments by others, that you're in a very fragile state right now on this?

SEN. JON KYL: Well, we are, but I don't think that -- so far, none of the killer amendments have passed, and I think it's because primarily people do want to try to move this legislation forward. And it's hard, because there may be a kernel of a good idea in each of these amendments, but in order to try to remain true to the basic bipartisan consensus that was developed, I think it's important that those elements of the agreement remain intact.

I don't agree with the description of the Cornyn amendment that Senator Menendez just engaged in here. The primary problem that I think his side has with it is that it eliminates a waiver which can be granted to a lot of people who are absconders, that is to say, people that have violated a court order for removal.

Those people would ordinarily not be permitted to be eligible to the program, but there could be a waiver invoked. And that's the primary effect of what his amendment does.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Well, thank you, Senator Jon Kyl. And thank you, Senator Bob Menendez.