Washington, DC — Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid today delivered the following floor remarks on comprehensive immigration reform legislation under debate in the U.S. Senate. Democrats are working for comprehensive reform that is tough and smart to secure our borders, crack down on employers who hire illegally, and bring undocumented workers out of the shadows.
Senator Reid’s remarks, as prepared, follow below.
Opening Statement of Senator Harry Reid
on Immigration Reform
March 30, 2006
I am very pleased that the Senate has begun to debate immigration reform. Last week I traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border and saw firsthand the problems created by our broken immigration system. We need a serious strategy to address this crisis.
Immigration reform is a matter of national security — we must know who is crossing our borders and who is living and working in our country. We need tough and smart enforcement at the border and throughout our country. And we need realistic immigration laws that bring immigrants out of the shadows, paying taxes, learning English and contributing to our communities.
I strongly support enforcement, but I also know that enforcement alone can’t solve the problem.
We have tried that for the past twenty years. We have tripled the number of Border Patrol agents over the last two decades and increased the immigration enforcement budget ten times over. But, during that same period, the probability of catching someone illegally crossing the border has fallen from about 33 percent to about 5 percent.
My recent visit to the border convinced me all the more that enforcement alone is not the answer. I flew over several miles of the border near San Diego and talked at length with border patrol agents. They recognize better than anyone that fences don’t keep people out. People cut through, climb over, and tunnel under fences. The agents showed me the dents in the secondary border fence where people have hooked ladders to climb over it.
Half a million people come across every year. The fact is, our economy depends on them and absorbs them. We simply cannot get this situation under control unless we acknowledge this economic reality.
To be sure, we need more border patrol agents and we should give them the equipment and technology they need. We must shut down the flow of illegal immigration. But we must also need realistic and enforceable immigration laws.
One crucial element of this strategy is to provide incentives for the undocumented immigrants already in the country to step out of the shadows.
Today there are more than eleven million undocumented people in the United States and more coming every day. From a national security perspective, this is unacceptable. A sovereign government must know the identity of people crossing its borders and living in its cities.
Of course most of these eleven million pose no threat. Many have been here for years. Many have children and spouses who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Many pay taxes, own property, and are active, valuable members of our community. Virtually all of them came here to work.
But they are living in hiding. If they are the victim of a crime, they don’t report it, because they are scared to have contact with the police. They accept abuse and low wages in the workplace. They live in fear every day that they will be deported and separated from their families.
It is simply unrealistic to think that we can round up all these people and expel them. As columnist George Will writes in today’s Washington Post: “We are not going to take the draconian police measures necessary to deport 11 million people. They would fill 200,000 buses in a caravan stretching bumper-to-bumper from San Diego to Alaska. And there are no plausible incentives to get the 11 million to board the buses.”
Even if we could deport the 11 million, would we want to? It would cost many billions of dollars to do so. Some sectors of the U.S. economy would literally shut down without them. And it would be inconsistent with our core values as Americans.
There are two competing approaches to this issue. The House has passed a bill that represents one approach. And the Senate Judiciary Committee has reported a bill that represents the other approach.
I think the House bill is profoundly misguided. It purports to be a border security bill, but it contains provisions that aren’t about securing our borders at all. It makes criminals out of and demonizes a lot of hard-working people who are just trying to provide for their families. In my view the House bill is mean-spirited and un-American. It is not going to solve the problem.
In contrast, the Senate Judiciary Committee bill would take real steps to restore order to our immigration system. It combines tough, effective enforcement with smart reforms to the immigration laws. It would strengthen our borders, crack down on employers who hire illegally, and bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. It would require them to learn English and pay taxes.
The Committee bill had strong bipartisan support. Half of the Republicans on the Committee voted for it.
Under that bill there would be no amnesty, no free pass, and no jumping to the front of the line. Immigrants here illegally could only apply for permanent residence after working for several years, paying their taxes, paying a $2,000 fine, undergoing a rigorous security check, and learning English and American civics.
By shifting the flow of undocumented immigrants to legal channels and creating a heard-earned path to citizenship for those already here, we can finally focus on catching the criminals and terrorists who put our nation at risk. That makes more sense than spending precious law enforcement resources trying to track down hard-working housekeepers, dishwashers and others.
As we weigh these competing proposals in the coming days, we must not forget that we are a nation founded on and built by immigrants. Our grandparents and great-grandparents came here to pursue the American dream. Let us honor that proud heritage.