Senate Democrats

Reid: Immigration Agreement Is Starting Point For Negotiating Fair, Tough, Practical Reform

WASHINGTON, D.C.–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada made the following statement today on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

This week, the Senate will begin conference on the emergency supplemental bill.  Negotiations have not been easy, as President Bush continues to stand isolated in his commitment to an endless war.  We will continue to negotiate with good faith in the spirit of bipartisanship.  We will send the President a bill that fully funds our troops.  But we stand firm in our commitment to change course and bring the war to its responsible end.

While the supplemental conference committee continues to meet, we will begin addressing the complex and crucial issue of immigration reform today.  We all agree that the current system is badly broken.  We need immigration reform that is tough, fair and practical.  We need a policy that brings the 12 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.  We need to have workplace enforcement that is efficient and effective.  There are no winners under the current system, only losers.

The Senate will have an opportunity this afternoon to vote on whether to begin debate on comprehensive immigration reform.  The bill we debate and eventually pass will give us the chance to:

  • Strengthen border security;
  • Put in place an effective and efficient employer verification system;
  • Design a new worker program to take pressure off the borders;
  • And give those 12 million undocumented immigrants the opportunity to come out of the shadows and into the light.

Improving border security is part of the puzzle.  As long as the identities of those who cross the border are unknown, our national security is at risk.  There is no question that we need more border patrol agents with better technology and equipment.

But there is also no question that enforcement alone can’t solve the problem.  We have tripled the number of border patrol agents over the last twenty years and increased the border patrol budget ten times over — yet the probability of catching someone illegally crossing the border has fallen from 33% to just 5%.

A population the size of Las Vegas crosses the border every year.  That’s half a million people who find their way into the country, despite our best efforts at enforcement.  Fences alone won’t stop them.  Years of dangerous border crossings show us that millions will risk their lives for the opportunity that waits on the other side. 

And we must not forget that just as these immigrants depend on America for opportunity, our economy depends on them as well.  The overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants have lived here for years, contributing to our economy lawfully, honestly and causing harm to no one.  Many have children and spouses who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.  Many own property and contribute to their communities.  Yet unlike us, they live their lives in hiding.

If they are the victim of a crime, they don’t report it to avoid contact with the police.  If they are treated unfairly at the workplace, they have little recourse.  If they are discovered, they face deportation and separation from their families.  We should not allow them to jump to the front of the line for a green card in front of those who have played by the rules.  But we should give them a place in line – a chance for citizenship if they do what we ask of them.

We could continue to track down the undocumented housekeepers, dishwashers and farm laborers who live among us.  Or we could provide them the chance to earn their citizenship with all the responsibilities it requires – and refocus our limited resources on those who would do us harm, rather than those who do us proud.  We could embrace the unrealistic rhetoric calling for mass deportation, or we could pass laws that require them to pay taxes and learn English.

If we put rhetoric aside, we have the opportunity to pass a law that treats people fairly and strengthens our economy.  Over the past several weeks, a group of senators has spent countless hours negotiating in good faith and in a spirit of compromise.  Last week, three Democrats, seven Republicans, standing with the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Commerce, announced that they had finally reached an agreement. 

The bill they have drafted will be offered as a substitute amendment for us to debate and amend this week.  I am grateful to my colleagues for their hard work.  Reaching agreement on an issue as controversial as immigration requires extraordinary compromise.  They have taken an important first step.  But I was not involved in these negotiations, and like many of my colleagues, I have some serious reservations about the agreement that was reached. 

The bill impacts families in a number of ways that I believe are unwise.  The bill allows 400,000 low-skilled workers to come in for three two-year terms, but requires them to go home for a year in between.  This is impractical both for the workers and for their American employers, who need a stable and reliable workforce.

We must not create a law that guarantees a permanent underclass – people who are here to work in low-wage, low-skilled jobs – but do not have the chance to put down roots or benefit from the opportunities that American citizenship affords.  Allowing these temporary workers to apply for possible citizenship through a new “points” system is not good enough.  There must be more certain opportunities for those who are willing to work hard and contribute to our economy.

Finally, let me say a word about this idea of “touchback,” which would require the head of each household eligible for legalization to return to their home country to file their application for a green card.  I understand that this concept is important to many of my Republican colleagues but this seems to me a plan that will only cause needless hardship for immigrants and needless bureaucracy for the government.

Nearly everyone agrees that the existing bill is imperfect.  The problems I have outlined must be fixed.  What we have now is a starting point.  I urge my colleagues to vote for cloture so that we may begin an open, honest debate.  The bipartisan legislation before us is not perfect, but I think we can all agree that the spirit of bipartisanship behind it is encouraging. 

If we can continue along that road in the coming days, I am confident that we can write another chapter in America’s great immigration story that makes our country safer, treats people with dignity, and keeps our economy moving strong.