TOPICS > Politics

President Bush Pushes Senators to Revive Immigration Bill

June 12, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: The last time President Bush took his motorcade to the Capitol for a Tuesday policy lunch with Senate Republicans was six years ago. His visit today to persuade more of them to support the stalled immigration bill was meant to underscore his desire for legislation that could become the top domestic achievement of his administration.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: It’s the president’s bill.

KWAME HOLMAN: Majority Leader Harry Reid has been urging the president to get more involved. He sent the president a letter last night stressing it will require more Republican supporters before the Senate gets back to work on it.

SEN. HARRY REID: The question is, do the Republicans support their president’s immigration bill? At this stage, it’s a resounding no. When it comes to be yes, when they get 25 or so votes for us, we’ll have another proposition that we can bring to the Senate.

KWAME HOLMAN: The immigration bill exists only because of a very fragile compromise reached among a bipartisan group of senators. In return for offering a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million people currently in this country illegally, future immigration visas would be determined by a merit-based system. Those with certain job skills would get preference over those with family members already here.

Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions was not involved in forging the compromise and helped sink the bill last week. Sessions is unhappy with its two major tenets.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: The bill promised to go to a situation in which it would be a more merit-based system. That’s eight years out, and that’s really not in there in any significant way.

And in addition, it looks like, over the next 20 years, this will double the number of people who become legal permanent residents in America, and I don’t think that was what was the American people anticipated when they looked for immigration reform.

KWAME HOLMAN: Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson did help write the bill, but before today’s lunch said the president must listen to the concerns of senators that a stronger commitment to money for border security is needed, and soon.

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), Georgia: I hope there’s going to be a discussion, and I hope it’s going to be a discussion very much like you and I are having. If it is, it could be very productive, because we can try and find some common ground on the security issue. If it’s not a discussion, then I don’t think any progress, much would be made.

KWAME HOLMAN: After the lunch, President Bush, flanked by Senate Republican leaders, described for reporters some of the attitudes he encountered.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Some members in there are — believe that we need to move a comprehensive bill. Some don’t. I understand that. It’s a highly emotional issue.

It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of effort. We’ve got to convince the American people that this bill is the best way to enforce our border. I believe, without the bill, it’s going to be harder to enforce the border. The status quo is unacceptable.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican leader Mitch McConnell called the meeting a “good give-and-take” and said he remained optimistic the bill could be revived.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: But I do think this bill is about 80 percent or 85 percent of the way through toward the finish line, and we don’t have any interest in giving up on it.

KWAME HOLMAN: And later, Majority Leader Reid reissued his offer to bring back the bill when enough Republicans are there to support it.

SEN. HARRY REID: It is up to the Republicans. I have agreed to go forward on this, if they give me a way to go forward on it.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Senator Sessions, for one, said he was not persuaded by the president and argued that bringing the bill back too soon would diminish public support for it.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: If it comes back up, we’re going to have to have another national discussion on where the weaknesses in the legislation are. And I think the confidence of the American — of support by the American people in the bill will sink further.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, if Republicans can agree on a restricted number of amendments, Democratic Leader Reid said he’ll reopen debate on the immigration bill as early as next week.

The dangers of the status quo

Ben Miranda
(D) Arizona State Representative
There's something in there that says to us that we need to look seriously of how economically we're managing this country. And the economics of this country are very much interwoven with the need for labor.

JIM LEHRER: And to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: While President Bush argues in Washington against the dangers of the status quo on immigration, several states have been taking matters into their own hands.

In Georgia, State Senator Chip Rogers, a Republican, was behind a new law that imposes tighter restrictions on illegal immigrants, their access to jobs and to social services. In Arizona, State Representative Ben Miranda, a Democrat, has opposed legislation that would crack down on illegal immigrants.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Senator Rogers, let me ask you first. Is Washington having the right argument?

STATE SEN. CHIP ROGERS (R), Georgia: No, they're not having the right argument. This is not a legislative matter at all; this is an executive matter. The executive branch and President Bush have simply failed the American people.

We constantly hear about this being debated between Democrats and Republicans. It's not about politicians; it's about the American people. The American people are very clear: You fooled us once in 1986 with the massive amnesty. You're not going to fool us again. Secure the borders, and then we'll talk about 20 million illegal aliens that are here. But until you actually secure the borders, this legislation is totally unnecessary.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask the same question of Representative Miranda, from your point of view in Arizona?

STATE REP. BEN MIRANDA (D), Arizona: Well, I think there's been a failure, a complete failure since '86; '86 didn't address the issue, because it failed to take into consideration the increased need for foreign labor in this country. It's obvious.

The fact is that we have to move the debate towards and answer a couple of questions to precede that. One, we can't deport 12 million people. If we've arrived at that conclusion, then we move on towards a solution.

What's stalled in the Senate today is a bill that has criticism from both sides, but I suspect, in the end, we will have immigration reform because, without it, it means outsourcing jobs to foreign countries, and it also means that we will have silent amnesty. To continue to maintain the status quo is the equivalent of silent amnesty.

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you, Representative Miranda, based on what you've seen unfold in the Senate in the last couple of weeks, and again today with the president -- who didn't seem to change a lot of minds, at least not immediately -- why are you so optimistic about the prospects for that bill?

BEN MIRANDA: Well, I think it's important to look at the labor needs of this country, and we begin there. Now, we could go over a number of studies that have been done, but I'd just simply limit it to this: We do need foreign labor. And we've started a very dangerous trend when we see the number of outsourcing that's been done from this country.

Eighty percent of our companies that trade on the stock market right now do some form of outsourcing to foreign countries. Every time I went shopping at Christmastime, when I turned over that gift that I was going to buy, it said, "India," "Thailand," or "China."

There's something in there that says to us that we need to look seriously of how economically we're managing this country. And the economics of this country are very much interwoven with the need for labor.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Rogers, let's get our heads out of Washington for a moment and talk about what it is you have accomplished in Georgia. Describe to us this new law which has taken effect in Georgia.

CHIP ROGERS: I'll be glad to, but let me first say something about that. I hear from my friend from Arizona talk about this as if it's some sort of corporation. America is not a corporation. We are a country. Some things matter more than the bottom line; some things matter more than the price of tomatoes.

Our country, our rule of law is paramount here. And if we continue to look at this only in a dollars-and-cents, from that perspective, we're never talking about what really matters to Americans. Americans sense this. It's not about the bottom line for big, multinational corporations. It's about our nation.

GWEN IFILL: But is the solution...

CHIP ROGERS: Now, here in Georgia, what we simply said was there are laws on the books. We are going to enforce these laws. I'm sure my friend in Arizona has great respect for the work he does in the Arizona legislature and that, when he passes a law, he actually believes it's going to be enforced.

Well, when the United States Congress passed immigration reform in 1986, and then again in 1996, it wasn't just a joke. These weren't just suggestions. These are laws that are on the books. We don't have the liberty to pick and choose which laws we follow. So in Georgia, we have a comprehensive bill, using that term, that actually enforces the laws that are on the books.

Defining executive power

Chip Rogers
(R) Georgia State Senator
what the federal government is supposed to do is secure our borders and enforce the immigration laws that are on the books, particularly against employers.

GWEN IFILL: So you're saying, Senator Rogers, that this is something which needs to be worked out on the state level, not at all on the federal level?

CHIP ROGERS: No, what the federal government is supposed to do is secure our borders and enforce the immigration laws that are on the books, particularly against employers. If we will go after the employers, we'll lessen the burden that's on our Border Patrol, and building that fence will be a lot easier.

But, I mean, look, this president has done absolutely nothing. In six years, he's accomplished zero at the border. I was in Arizona this past year. I've seen what our border consist of, three or four strands of barbed wire. Look, here in Georgia, we got more secure fences for our cows and horses than we do on the border in Arizona. I mean, it is a joke. It's not a silent amnesty.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask the representative from Arizona to talk about what he thinks Arizona is doing and whether it, as Senator Rogers seems to think, is a joke.

BEN MIRANDA: Well, let's face it. At the end of the road, whatever Arizona does -- and Georgia seems to have taken a note off of Arizona -- it won't work. However, this senator seems to place some kind of importance or at least an over-importance on trying to secure the border.

And the fact is that, unless we do something, what drives people to come to this country, we're not going to completely address the entire immigration problem. The fact is that -- and I know we have limited time -- but the fact is that NAFTA has had catastrophic effects on Mexico and other countries that are now driving these populations here to the United States.

And, frankly, as long as people offer jobs to people here, they'll come. They'll come because the jobs are being offered to them. I'd suspect, at the end of the road, we're going to need to need Washington to move forward.

The reason why I'm optimistic, Gwen, is because, for one thing, I do feel that, for the first time, the business community knows what's at stake. Their very survival, whether it's the Silicon Valley or whether it's the carpet producers out of Georgia, they're all in the same boat on this one. We need labor, and I think they understand that.

And I think the business community is going to come forward and do what it has not done for the last few years. As far as President Bush, well, he's had the ball now for the last seven years. He's done very little. It's up to him now, too.

GWEN IFILL: But, Representative Miranda, what do you say to people like Senator Rogers who say there are laws on the books and they're simply not being enforced? The president came out today and said that his first goal here is to secure the borders. What do you say to that?

BEN MIRANDA: Gwen, politicians make mistakes. They've made a mistake by dealing with this problem in a piecemeal approach. It won't work. And we're about to make the second mistake, if we follow this senator's advice, and try to put the emphasis on border control and law enforcement, which, again, is what Georgia has done with this legislation, put the emphasis there.

We won't solve the needs of this country, as far as labor; until we do that and we address those needs, we won't get there. Simply because we say, because they came here illegally, somehow or other we can't start the debate by addressing the issues of the labor needs of this country? To me, that makes no sense. We need to understand that we have labor needs in this country.

"Enforce the borders"

Chip Rogers
(R) Georgia State Senator
What my friend's not talking about is what this does to our school systems, what this does to our health care systems, what this does to our transportation systems, what this does to our environment.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Rogers, what do your constituents tell you? The people here in the United States, Senator, say they've been overwhelmed with feedback from people in their home districts telling them what they ought to do on this. What are yours telling you?

CHIP ROGERS: Well, my constituents are telling me a very simple message: You fooled us once in 1986 with an amnesty that has now resulted in 20 million additional illegal aliens. We're not falling for your tricks again. Enforce the borders, and go after employers.

I hear my friend talk about labor needs, labor needs, labor needs. The fact of the matter is, is that according to the Pew Hispanic Research Study, less than 5 percent of all the employees in the United States are here illegally, less than 5 percent.

What my friend's not talking about is what this does to our school systems, what this does to our health care systems, what this does to our transportation systems, what this does to our environment. Issue after issue after issue that my people care about -- and I'm sure his constituents care about as well -- are affected in a negative way by illegal immigration.

Look, Arizona and New Mexico, they declared states of emergency. If illegal immigration was such a good thing, they wouldn't declare states of emergency. They would have out "welcome" signs.

GWEN IFILL: Your response, Representative Miranda?

BEN MIRANDA: I can simply tell you this. To beat up on the immigrant gets us nowhere to resolve the issue that's involved here. I really truly -- I differ with John McCain on a number of issues, including the war in Iraq, but I do give him credit for having the courage to address this issue head-on and to try to present something that's practical, workable and enforceable.

And if we can't see that, then we're catering to the future, the immediate elections we have, and we're sacrificing the future economic prosperity of this country. There is no question that when you look at the combined economic power of countries like India and countries like China together, which have more economic power than the United States, we're headed in the wrong direction, folks.

And unless we address those needs and look seriously -- for instance, 70 million Americans are now baby boomers. Who's going to feed this, Senator, next? Who's going to go to the grocery store for him? Who's going to provide the nurses? We're importing nurses from foreign countries right now when we have the capability of training them here.

There's a number of issues out here that can't be addressed in 12 minutes, but I'll tell you, this senator is wrong. This senator has got to look at a solution, not just identify the problem.

"The states can step up"

Ben Miranda
(D) Arizona State Representative
What Arizona and Georgia are doing do not resolve the issue, simply drive populations further into hiding, make it more difficult, and companies continue to reap the benefits and exploit labor the way it's been happening.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you, Senator Rogers, what happens if no federal law passes, if the status quo continues? Is this something where the states just have to step up' or do things get better or do they get worse?

CHIP ROGERS: Well, certainly, the states can step up. And the bill we passed in Georgia -- and similar bills have passed in Oklahoma and in Colorado -- and the states are doing something about it, because the states are the one that are having to pick up the tab on this subsidized labor, that my friend likes to call cheap labor. It's not cheap. Taxpayers pay for it.

But what ought to happen is the American people have a decision to make in 2008. They've got a lot of people running for president. They need to look at those people and determine, who's actually going to do the job? This president has failed us; the next president needs not fail us.

The president can execute the laws that are on the books. That's part of being the executive branch. He can secure the border. He's asking us to send people to Iraq to secure their border, and he won't secure our border.

It is a joke. This president has been a joke on this issue. My friend, he continues to talk about labor needs, labor needs, labor needs. I talk about what's best for the American people, not what's best for multinational corporations.

GWEN IFILL: Let me get Representative Miranda, also, to respond to that question about -- there are risks involved in the status quo.

BEN MIRANDA: Well, obviously, if we do nothing, we accept what is called silent amnesty. What this senator seems to propose, that we do nothing and allow the state to do it, allow the states to proceed along the way that Georgia has done it, Arizona has done it.

What Arizona and Georgia are doing do not resolve the issue, simply drive populations further into hiding, make it more difficult, and companies continue to reap the benefits and exploit labor the way it's been happening. And we do nothing about resolving the issue.

I'll tell you, I have faith that the American people, at the end of the road, are going to look at this problem, assess it, and say, "Yes, we need immigration reform, and we need it the way some people are suggesting in Washington, D.C."

Let me remind you that when McCain put his political career on the chopping block, he did it for a good reason. And I respect the man. And, basically, I think we're headed in the right direction in the Senate. I think the president is going to step forward. I think the business community is going to step forward. And I think all of them -- we're going to see an immigration reform package that works in America.

GWEN IFILL: State Representative Ben Miranda of Arizona and State Senator Chip Rogers of Georgia, thank you both very much.

CHIP ROGERS: Glad to be here.

BEN MIRANDA: Thank you very much.