Washington, DC — Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid today delivered the following remarks on the Floor of the U.S. Senate, laying out the questions that the President must answer tonight if he wants to convince the American people that he is serious about securing America’s borders and passing comprehensive immigration reform.
The text of Senator Reid’s remarks, as prepared, is below.
Mr. President, summer is a time for Hollywood blockbusters. Those big budget movies that attract large audiences and the biggest movie stars.
This third week of May, we have a blockbuster of our own in the Senate. It’s a sequel. Immigration Part II.
We know how the first installment went, and we know there was not a happy ending.
The Senate’s first attempt at immigration reform was flawed from the beginning. This is a complex, emotional issue, but the Judiciary Committee was given only a few days to consider a bill that was hundreds of pages long. Why? Because they were working under an arbitrary deadline set by the Majority to get a bill to the floor.
Despite the time crunch, the Committee did fine work. However, their efforts we’re soon halted by a handful of Senators who were unwilling to move forward on a bipartisan deal.
I’ve said many times the deal we reached was not perfect, but it would have secured our borders, cracked down on employers who break the law, and given 12 million undocumented immigrants a reason to come out of the shadows, undergo criminal background checks, learn English and pay a fine.
Democrats voted twice to keep the issue moving forward, but our efforts were denied. And as a result–for the last month–Americans have waited in frustration for results on immigration.
That, Mr. President, was the first installment.
Today, we start scene one of the sequel, a sequel in which President Bush will play a leading role. Like most Americans, I look forward to hearing what the President has to say.
If news reports are any indication, he’s going to focus on border security. Today, I join many of our Governors–both Republican and Democrats–in saying “it’s about time.”
I support doing whatever it takes to secure our borders, but for five and half years, this is an issue President Bush has largely ignored.
He has a credibility problem, and questions to answer.
It’s not enough for him to unveil a new proposal. He needs to tell us how he’s going to fix a border and an immigration system that are suffering from his neglect.
Tonight must be more than a photo-op. It must be the next step towards the comprehensive immigration reform America needs.
The first question for President Bush is very basic. We need to know what kind of immigration reform he supports?
Does he believe–as his Republicans in the House do–that we should build a 700 mile fence on our border?
Does he believe–as his Republicans in the House do–that we should make all undocumented immigrants felons?
Does he believe–as his Republicans in the House do–that we should make all those who feed, clothe and otherwise assist undocumented immigrants felons too?
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Cardinal Roger M. Mahony–one of the nicest, most caring men you will ever meet. Under the House legislation, Cardinal Mahony would be a felon.
Here’s what he said about the bill:
“The whole concept of punishing people who serve immigrants is un-American. If you take this to its logical, ludicrous extreme, every single person who comes up to receive Holy Communion, you have to ask them to show papers. It becomes absurd and the church is not about to get into that. The church is here to serve people…. We’re not about to become immigration agents. It just throws more gasoline on the discussion and inflames people.” [Los Angeles Times, 3/1/06]
Mr. President, I believe the Senate will move forward with good, strong immigration reform. But I also believe our work could be hijacked by House Republicans who want to turn immigrants into felons.
I’ve fought to prevent this from happening by guaranteeing fair representation in the Conference Committee, but the President can do even more tonight.
Chairman Sensenbrenner–the man who is pushing the felon provision–has stated publicly that the measure was included at the – quote – “administration’s request” – end quote. If that’s the case, President Bush needs to tell Chairman Sensenbrenner to remove the provision, and that it is dead on arrival.
He needs to make it clear–once and for all–that he will only support immigration reform that is tough AND smart.
The second question for President Bush concerns security. It’s fine to hear him say he wants to send the National Guard, but what else will he do to address five years of neglect?
Tonight it is not enough for President Bush to tell us he wants to increase security at our borders. After all, he’s had five years to do it. If he wants to be credible on border security, he must acknowledge his mistakes and commit to fixing them.
The lack of security at our borders is frightening.
Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants have dropped under President Bush by 30 percent! We’ve gone from apprehending 1.7 million individuals illegally crossing between 1996 and 2000, to just over 1 million now.
It’s not that less people are coming, it’s that we don’t have the resources we need to catch them.
And it’s more than just people we can’t catch.
Who can forget the GAO report we received in March, which detailed how two federal investigators were able to smuggle nuclear material across our border.
This shocking report is an indictment of what has happened on our borders.
For too long, President Bush has sat on his hands and not even tried.
The 9/11 Commission told the President he should work with other countries to develop a terrorist watch list our border patrol agents could use to check people crossing the border.
Did he do it? No. The 9/11 Commission gave him a D when they issued their report card last year.
In the 9/11 Act – legislation we passed to secure our country, Congress authorized 2,000 new border patrol agents.
Did President Bush make sure they were put in place? No. He’s watched as Bush Republicans in Congress have refused to fund these positions. Even in next year’s budget, we’re still 500 agents short.
The same legislation–the 9/11 Act–authorized facilities to hold an additional 8,000 individuals detained illegally crossing our border. Currently, we don’t have the capacity to hold all those we detain, so they are often released with a Court date and disappear.
But did President Bush make sure these new facilities became a reality? No. He’s allowed Bush Republicans in Congress to fund only 1,800 new detention beds.
All of this adds to a credibility gap by President Bush. He’s coming late to the dance, and has a lot of explaining to do.
If he’s going to talk credibly about border security, it’s not enough for him to unveil a proposal to use our national guard.
He must commit to fixing the problems he’s been neglecting and tell us when he’s going to add additional agents… put the proper facilities in place… and implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
Question Three: If President Bush is going to get tough on border security, will he finally get tough on employer sanctions as well?
Again, this is a question of credibility.
For years, the Bush White House has been willing to look the other way as our immigration laws have gone un-enforced.
In 2004, the government issued just three “notices of intent to fine” employers. And in the end, it never fined anyone.
In 2005, the administration targeted only one employer for an enforcement action, Wal-Mart.
Overall, audits of employers suspected of using illegal immigrants have dropped from 8,000 under President Clinton to less than 2,200 in 2003.
President Bush must account for this record in his speech.
Question Four: If – as rumored – President Bush is going to announce he’s sending the National Guard to our border, will he tell Americans how this proposal will work without jeopardizing the critical role the National Guard plays in keeping our communities safe?
The National Guard is a vital force, on which all of us – Presidents, Governors, Mayors and Members of Congress – count.
Unfortunately, President Bush has overtaxed, over-used and under-funded this critical national security resource.
The men and women of our National Guard have given us their best in Iraq…
They’ve given us their best on the Gulf Coast…
And they’re giving it their best in Nevada and states across America today.
Now–if it’s true the President is going to order them on another mission–he must tell us how he’s going to help them succeed, and ensure they are ready and prepared should they be called to another mission while stationed at our border.
It is ironic that in January his White House was talking about cutting 17,000 Guardsmen, now he’s asking them to do even more.
Tonight–in clear and consistent terms–we need to hear how they will be used, how they will be supported, and how they will be prepared and ready for other unexpected missions.
Mr. President, these are the four questions by which we must judge President Bush tonight. His answers will tell us if he is committed to comprehensive reform and if he’s finally serious about securing our borders.
As I said in the beginning of my speech, today marks the beginning of Immigration Part II.
Scene one will close tonight with the President’s speech, leaving many more scenes to play in the Senate.
Mr. President, I believe it is important that the Senate pass a bill and go on record supporting a comprehensive, enforcement PLUS reform approach, and opposing the House’s punitive, enforcement-only bill.
I have made clear that I will support the Hagel-Martinez compromise that was struck before the Easter recess, and, like most other Democrats, I have already voted in favor of that approach.
However, this compromise is not perfect. Among other problems with the bill, I particularly want to highlight my concern with the division of the population of the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants into three groups. The middle group, immigrants who have been here for between 2-5 years, would be required to do what I have heard some refer to as “touch-base” or “touch-base return.”
Mr. President, I am prepared to support this compromise if this is what it takes to pass this bill, but this seems a little silly to me. And I also fear that it may deter participation in the program, as some immigrants will fear they won’t be allowed to come back in or will find it too much of a hardship with regard to their financial or childcare responsibilities, to be able to make that trip.
Perhaps more importantly, this bill includes some mean-spirited provisions for this group that strike me as unwise as a matter of public policy. They have to waive their right to administrative or judicial review, which means they will have no right to contest the decision of some lowly bureaucrat who’s having a bad day and decides they don’t meet the requirements to participate in this legalization program. For me, that sounds like a big problem.
In addition, many tens of thousands of people in this group will be ineligible for the program because they have a prior deportation order, have failed to leave the country under a voluntary departure agreement, or – and this one is particularly disturbing – have failed to comply “with any request for information by the Secretary of Homeland Security.”
The whole point of what we’re doing is to deal with this population that’s here under the table, and I don’t see why we should make a distinction between those who have been unlucky enough to get caught and put through deportation proceedings and those who haven’t.
Mr. President, if we’re going to do this, I want to do it right, and I hope we can make some fixes to these sections so that we can get as many people out of the shadows, registered with the government, paying taxes, learning English, and complying with the law as possible.
I look forward to the debate ahead, and to working with the Majority to deliver the comprehensive immigration reform the American people expect.