Leader On Immigration Reform Outlines His Vision On The Senate Floor

Leader On Immigration Reform Outlines His Vision On The Senate Floor

Menendez speaks about challenges, solutions and problems with the immigration deal

Washington - U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) today took to the Senate floor to outline his vision for comprehensive immigration reform. Menendez, a key negotiator in this year's closed door Senate meetings on immigration reform, has voiced strong opposition to the agreement.

Nation of Immigrants

Menendez, the American-born son of Cuban immigrants, spoke of America's rich history of immigration:

"Whether your family was part of the men and women who made the voyage on the Mayflower, part of the millions who stepped off a ship at Ellis Island, part of those who were brought to this nation against their own will, or if, like my own parents, you came to this country fleeing tyranny and searching for freedom, we all have a connection to immigration."

History of Intolerance

While recognizing that there are many examples of America being a welcoming nation, Menendez cited examples showing how intolerance towards immigrants has infected the public discussion throughout history. For example, Henry J. Gardner, the Governor of Massachusetts in the middle of the nineteenth century, saw the Irish as a "horde of foreign barbarians":

"Today, we continue to hear hateful rhetoric used to polarize and divide our country on this issue," said Menendez. "But, we must never allow ourselves to buy into the rhetoric - we must never subscribe to the policies of fear and division driven by xenophobia, nativism, and racism."

Broken System, Need for Reform

Menendez discussed the need for reform of the immigration system, and the threat that without federal legislation, local governments would enact their own ordinances, many of which would violate constitutional equal protection guarantees and create a sense of division in the community:

"On this issue, we must be completely honest with ourselves. Our country's immigration system is unarguably broken," said Menendez. "In light of these failures, we must enact tough, smart, and comprehensive immigration reform that reflects current economic and social realities, respects the core values of family unity and fundamental fairness, and upholds our tradition as a nation of immigrants."

Border Security

Menendez reiterated the need for tougher border security that would curtail unauthorized crossings at the border, stop human trafficking, and protect both undocumented immigrants and American workers from those wishing to exploit undocumented labor. However, he emphasized that history has proven that enforcement only measures are unsuccessful:

"Our goal should be neither open borders nor closed borders, but smart borders," said Menendez. "The specter of terrorism in a post-September 11 world creates an even greater imperative for us to succeed in this endeavor. And succeed we must since one of the most basic responsibilities the government has is to provide for the safety and security of its people."

Worker Protection

Menendez stressed the need to crack down on companies that illegally hire undocumented workers, and noted the current administration's failures on holding employers accountable. He cited the example that in 1999 alone 417 businesses were cited for immigrant violations, whereas in 2004 a mere three employers were issued notices of intent to fine by the Bush administration for similar violations.

Pathway to Citizenship

Menendez noted that to make the immigration system workable, a practical, fair and humane system must be enacted that encourages immigrants to come out of the shadows and legalize their status. Otherwise, the most massive roundup and deportation of people in the history of the world would be required:

"By coupling enhanced enforcement efforts with new immigration and labor laws, we will not only regulate how workers come into our country, but finally give our border and law enforcement agencies a fighting chance to fulfill their duty."

Family Reunification

Menendez stressed that as written, the current legislation would tear families apart and de-emphasize family connections in immigration policy. The Senator noted that he would be introducing and co-sponsoring a variety of amendments to address this fundamental issue:

"The deal struck virtually does away with provision for family reunification which has been the bedrock of our immigration policy throughout our history," said Menendez. "This idea not only changes the spirit of our immigration policy, it also de-emphasizes the family structure."

Personal Connection

Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, noted that many of those serving in Congress have deep personal connections to immigration and, like himself, were born to immigrants who would probably not have qualified under the proposed legislation:

"This deal would have prevented my own parents - a carpenter and a seamstress - from coming to this country," said Menendez. "I would like to think that they, like hundreds of millions of other immigrants who have helped build our nation, contributed to the strength and vitality of America."


Full text of his comments as prepared for delivery:

M. President,

Nation of Immigrants

From the Congressional District that I had the honor of representing for over 13 years in the House of Representatives, one can see the Statute of Liberty. Ellis Island is a place that has been the gateway to opportunity for millions of new Americans. For me, it is a shining example of the power of the American dream, a place that launched millions down their own road to success.

Whether your family was part of the men and women who made the voyage on the Mayflower, part of the millions who stepped off a ship at Ellis Island, part of those who were brought to this nation against their own will, or if, like my own parents, you came to this country fleeing tyranny and searching for freedom, we all have a connection to immigration.

History of Intolerance

So, America has a proud tradition as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. And history is replete with examples of the United States of America being a welcoming nation. Unfortunately, the public dialogue through the years has been less than welcoming.

Over the decades, the influx of immigrants of various ethnicities have caused concerns and in many cases heated comments against such immigrants to our nation. In some cases, there were even laws enacted to limit or ban certain ethnicities from being able to come to the land of opportunity.

Before the American Revolution, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote of the influx of German immigrants to Philadelphia: "Those who come hither are generally the most stupid of their own nation."

Henry J. Gardner, the governor of Massachusetts in the middle of the nineteenth century, saw the Irish as a "horde of foreign barbarians."

In 1882, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which made it nearly impossible for additional Chinese to enter America. The law was not repealed until 1943, in the middle of World War II, when the U.S. and China were allies against Japan.

In the early 1900s, H.G. Wells, a British novelist, stated that the arrival of Eastern Europeans, Jews, and Italians would cause a "huge dilution of the American people with profoundly ignorant foreign peasants."

Congressman Albert Johnson (R-WA), co-author of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 said that "Our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed.... The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended."

Finally a 1925 report of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce stated that Mexicans are suitable for agricultural work "due to their crouching and bending habits..., while the white is physically unable to adapt himself to them."

These are just a few statements from that past that have taken issue with and criticized the relatives and forefathers of various segments of our nation's populace today.

We must all remember that just last Congress, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4437, better known as the Sensenbrenner bill. Beyond the heated rhetoric that existed during the debate on that legislation, the bill itself was short-sighted and even mean-spirited and would have made felons out of anyone who was here in an undocumented status. The Sensenbrenner bill would have also criminalized citizens of the United States though a much broader definition of smuggling, that would have allowed the government to prosecute almost any American who has regular contact with undocumented immigrants.

Today, we continue to hear hateful rhetoric used to polarize and divide our country on this issue. But, we must never allow ourselves to buy into the rhetoric - we must never subscribe to the policies of fear and division driven by xenophobia, nativism, and racism.

So the responsibility is on all of us - not just Members of Congress, but everyone in this nation. We must reject the rhetoric of hatred, division, and polarization. We must demand a comprehensive immigration policy that does not denigrate or demonize - but is tough, smart, fair, and humane.

Broken System, Need for Reform

However, on this issue, we must be completely honest with ourselves. Our country's immigration system is unarguably broken.

In light of these failures, we must enact tough, smart, and comprehensive immigration reform that reflects current economic and social realities, respects the core values of family unity and fundamental fairness, and upholds our tradition as a nation of immigrants.

In the absence of federal legislation, many local governments in New Jersey and across the nation are passing ordinances to address issues surrounding undocumented immigration in their communities. Unfortunately, many of these ordinances violate constitutional equal protection guarantees and create a sense of division in the community.

In addition to the moral impetus, our society would greatly benefit economically if we enact comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform would allow undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and fully pay their taxes, ensuring accurate Census counts, which translate into equitable funding levels for programs and schools. Additionally, we can reduce law enforcement demands since the need for day laborers, forged documents and driver's licenses, along with the use of exploitation and human trafficking, would largely be shut down.

Those that don't come forward would then be focused on and we would be able to determine who is here to pursue the American Dream and who is here to destroy it.

Border Security

We need to aggressively curtail unauthorized crossings at the border, protect both undocumented immigrants and American workers from corporations exploiting undocumented labor, and provide a pathway for immigrants to earn I repeat earn permanent residency in order to ensure that our immigration system is safe, legal, orderly, and fair to all.

Our goal should be neither open borders nor closed borders, but smart borders. The specter of terrorism in a post-September 11 world creates an even greater imperative for us to succeed in this endeavor. And succeed we must since one of the most basic responsibilities the government has is to provide for the safety and security of its people.

Unfortunately, we are failing to uphold our end of the social contract. We have all heard about and seen the lawlessness along our borders. Crime in our border communities is increasing and overwhelming local law enforcement's ability to address these challenges. So-called coyotes, or human smugglers, charge thousands of dollars to bring people into this country, creating a multi-million dollar industry for organized criminal organizations to exploit and fuel their other illegal activities. In fact, several reports have indicated that there is more money in smuggling these undocumented immigrants into our nation than smuggling drugs.

However, history proves that it is not enough to rely on enforcement only. Over the past two decades, the Federal government has tripled the number of Border Patrol agents and increased the enforcement budget ten-fold. Despite these efforts, 12 million individuals have overstayed their visas or are undocumented.

Worker Protection

Securing our borders is the first step we must take to ensure an orderly, fair, and smart immigration system, but by no means is it adequate in isolation. We must also crack down on companies that illegally hire undocumented workers something that is long overdue. Under the Clinton administration employers were held accountable for hiring undocumented workers as 417 businesses were cited for immigrant violations in 1999 alone. In contrast, a mere three I repeat three employers were issued notices of intent to fine by the Bush administration in 2004 for similar violations, making it 22 times more likely for an American to be killed by a strike of lightening in an average year than prosecuted for such labor violations.

What happened in the span of those five years? Did companies suddenly decide to start abiding by the law by not hiring undocumented immigrants? The answer to this is obviously no. The truth of the matter is, similar to border enforcement, this administration made a conscious decision to look the other way, in order to once again serve the interests of corporate America, to the detriment of the average American citizen.

That is why I support stronger immigration enforcement at not only our borders, but at the workplace too. Unscrupulous companies that intentionally hire undocumented immigrants do so because they know they can exploit these people without fear of retribution. They know this because undocumented immigrants are forced to hide in the shadows of society and subsequently have no avenues to report labor abuses. Not only does this hurt the immigrant being exploited; it also directly impacts American citizens who must compete in the market with exploited labor. We must immediately end these abuses and in doing so create an equal playing field to ensure that the wages, benefits, and health and labor standards of the American worker are not undercut.

While securing our borders and enforcing strengthened workplace employment laws will enable us to regulate the influx of new immigrants, it does nothing to solve our current dilemma of an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants that currently reside in the U.S. That is why our immigration policy must be about more than simply enforcement - it must also be about providing a safe, orderly, timely and legal process that deals with the economic realities of our time.

Pathway to Citizenship

In order to make our immigration system workable, we must be practical, fair, and humane in dealing with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. To do otherwise would require the most massive roundup and deportation of people in the history of the world. I believe that this is both highly unlikely and impractical on many levels, including due to both the budgetary and economic impact on our nation and its economy.

Such a mass deportation of the undocumented population, even assuming 20 percent would leave voluntarily if such a policy was enacted, would cost at least $206 billion over a five-year period according to the Center for American Progress.

So, fully securing our borders is impossible unless efforts include a temporary guest-worker program and a path to earned residence for undocumented immigrants.

This solution will encourage immigrants to come out of the shadows and legalize their status. By doing so, we will learn who is here to seek the American dream versus who is here to destroy it through criminal or terrorist acts. Most of the people who cross our borders come looking for work, just as many of our ancestors did. These immigrants contribute to our economy, provide for their families and want a better life for their children.

I am first and foremost in favor of hiring any American who is willing to do any job that is available in this country. But let's remember what jobs we're talking about. The fruits you had for breakfast were picked by the hands and bent back of an immigrant laborer. The hotel room and bathroom we use were likely cleaned with bended knee by an immigrant worker. The chicken you had for dinner yesterday was likely plucked by the cut up hands of an immigrant laborer. If you have an infirmed loved one, their daily necessities were probably tended to by the steady hands and warm heart of an immigrant aide.

We must also create an equal playing field to ensure the wages, benefits, and health and labor standards of the American worker are not undercut. But it's also in our best interest to have these workers participate in and contribute to our society, especially with a mere 4.5% unemployment rate in April 2007 and a declining ratio of American workers to retirees.

By coupling enhanced enforcement efforts with new immigration and labor laws, we will not only regulate how workers come into our country, but finally give our border and law enforcement agencies a fighting chance to fulfill their duty.

Family Reunification

M. President, I said throughout the negotiations that with a massive, complex bill like this one, the devil is in the details. There are a number of details in this deal that would create an unfair and impractical immigration system, undercutting the more sensible provisions.

That is especially true when it comes to the issue of family. The deal struck virtually does away with provision for family reunification which has been the bedrock of our immigration policy throughout our history. This idea not only changes the spirit of our immigration policy, it also de-emphasizes the family structure. And all without a SINGLE hearing on the issue of family in our immigration system by the Senate Judiciary Committee in either the 109th or the 110th Congresses.

Under this bill, they change the fundamental values of our immigration policy by making an advanced degree or skill in a highly-technical profession the most important criteria for a visa. This nation has been built by immigrants who came here to achieve success, but the deal tilts toward immigrants whose success stories are already written.

Family reunification will be deemphasized under this deal, serving to tear families apart. From a moral perspective, this undermines the family values lawmakers so often talk about.

As the late Pope John Paul II said, "The Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity."

Practically speaking, a breakdown of family structure often leads to a breakdown of social stability. I took it to heart when President Bush said that "family values don't end at the Rio Grande," but this agreement, like his proposal before it, belies those words.

Yet here we are with a piece of legislation which the White House supports that undermines the very essence of that. Even under a new point structure that is envisioned under this bill, it seems to me the essence of family should be given much more weight and points within the context of a whole new process of how we are going to move our immigration system forward. Family is a critical valueI believein our country.

I would like to take a little time to get into some of the details in this agreement and how they would impact families.

Parents

Under current law, foreign-born parents of U.S. citizens are exempt from green card caps when applying for legal permanent residency as they fall in the immediate relatives category. Unfortunately, the agreement removes these individuals from the immediate relatives category and sets an annual cap for green cards for parents of US citizens at 40,000. Last year, 120,000 visas were given to such parents and the annual average number of green cards issued over the past fives years to parents is 90,000, so this bill would slash required green cards by more than half. So, we are automatically creating a new backlog even though the bill is intended to end such family backlogs.

LPRs

Another area that would be negatively impacted under this deal are the spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents. The bill before us does not lift the visa cap on the spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents at all; actually it lowers it, ensuring that backlogs will continue indefinitely.

The separation is not only unmoral, but it exacts an economic toll, as lawful immigrants who are productive members of society move out of the country to rejoin their families. Moreover, unification with immediate family members gives rise to an undesirable incentive to break the law and live in the U.S. illegally.

Point System

The so-called "Grand Bargain" also moves us to a point-based immigration system, which would turn our current immigration system on its head. It is my understanding that a point system has not received a single hearing by the Judiciary Committee during my time in the United States Senate.

Yet in the agreement, we are moving to a point system that is geared towards people with degrees that are highly-skilled or educated. In fact, in the point system that is contained in the bill, family would receive NO points at all - NONE - unless the applicant has obtained at least 55 points through the employment, education, and English and civics parts of the new system. So much for family values...

In addition, if the applicant does meet the 55 point threshold, they would be eligible for a maximum of 10 additional points. That is out of 100 maximum points. I guess that some that preach family values don't believe that family should count for more than 10%.

May 1, 2005 Backlog

This legislation also curtails the ability of American citizens or permanent residents to petition for their families to be reunified here in America.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a family backlog of people that have applied for legal permanent residency who are claimed by U.S. citizens. This legislation, as currently drafted, does away with several of the family categories such as adult children of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents and siblings of citizens. These categories will be grandfathered in and dealt with as part of clearing the backlog during the first eight years only if they filed their application before May 1, 2005.

As a result, an estimated 833,000 people who have played by the rules and applied after that date will not be cleared as part of the family backlog and lose their chance to immigrate under current law.

So, the legislation, as currently drafted, says that if you legally applied for a visa on or after May 1, 2005, you have to compete to enter under a totally new system.

It is an arbitrary date that was picked out of thin air.

Let's think of how fundamentally unfair that is. Imagine you are a lawful permanent U.S. resident and you have fought for your country, you may have shed blood for your country and in some cases, you may have died for your country. In fact, a non-citizen, Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, originally of Guatemala was the very first U.S. combat casualty in the war with Iraq.

LPRs are also protecting our airports, our seaports, and our borders. They risk their lives daily in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places around the world to protect us here at home.

You have petitioned to have your sister come to join you and live in America. Under this bill, you would lose that right if you filed on or after May 1, 2005.

It is hard to imagine that one would have that right taken away from them.

Here is another case for you to consider. You are a U.S. citizen and have paid your taxes, served your nation, attend your church, and make a good living. You have petitioned to have your adult child come to America, but did so after the arbitrary date of May 1, 2005. Under this bill, the U.S. citizen would lose that right. However, those who are undocumented in the country after that May 1, 2005 date actually get a benefit.

Hard to imagine, but it is true.

So M. President, these are just a few of the many shortcomings that are contained in the bill that we consider today.

Personal Connection

This deal would have prevented my own parents - a carpenter and a seamstress - from coming to this country. I would like to think that they, like hundreds of millions of other immigrants who have helped build our nation, contributed to the strength and vitality of America.

As I have listened to the stories of so many of our fellow colleagues in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, I know many of their parents would never have qualified to come to this country. It seems to me a new paradigm could have been structured where family values and reunification have more of a fighting chance than under the framework agreement that we consider.

The story of this legislation is not finished. We still have the historic opportunity this week to craft tough, smart, and fair immigration reform. It is my intention, through a series of amendments that get to the heart of the issues I have mentioned, to help lead a charge to improve this deal on the Senate floor. I know many of my colleagues are committed to the same issues of practicality, fairness, and family values, and I will work with them to turn this unworkable deal into sound policy that we can all support.

Conclusion

As we have throughout our Nation's long and proud history, I believe we must create a pathway to the American dream for those who contribute to our nation and allow them to fully participate in our economy and society. As President Bush told Congress in his 2007 State of the Union speech: "Let us have a serious, civil, and conclusive debate, so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law."

It is a rare moment - but I agree with the President. Reform is long overdue.

However we got here, from wherever we came, we know that we are now in the same boat together, as Americans. And together we must make this journey a safe, orderly, and legal process that preserves and fulfills the American Dream for all.

M. President, I yield the floor.

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"Unscrupulous companies that intentionally hire undocumented immigrants do so because they know they can exploit these people without fear of retribution," said Menendez. "They know this because undocumented immigrants are forced to hide in the shadows of society and subsequently have no avenues to report labor abuses."