February 28, 2007
Statement of Chairman Patrick Leahy
"Comprehensive Immigration Reform"
Senate Judiciary Committee
February 28, 2007
I thank Secretary Gutierrez and Secretary Chertoff for agreeing to appear before the Committee today. I hope their participation will demonstrate the President's wholehearted commitment to working with us to enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year. Without the Administration's earnest engagement on this issue, our efforts are likely to suffer the same fate they did last year. This Committee reported a comprehensive immigration reform bill only to see Republican congressional opposition stall that effort, prevent a House-Senate conference and, instead, force through a bill calling for billions to be wasted constructing a 700-mile fence along our 2,000-mile Southern border. This year we have a renewed opportunity to do the right thing -- one which may not come along again.
By their votes in the most recent elections, the American people have reaffirmed America's traditional place as a nation of immigrants. We are not anti-immigrant or racist. We understand people seeking a better life for their children and grandchildren as naturally as we do. Americans understand that comprehensive immigration reform does not mean criminalizing the hard work of law-abiding people, deporting millions of families who have lived here for years or seeking to wall ourselves off from our neighbors and the world around us. Thankfully, the politics of fear did not succeed. Americans rejected the poisonous rhetoric of intolerance in favor of a more confident, realistic and humane approach that finds strength in diversity and human dignity.
If we are to reclaim America's promise, we need to keep our eyes on the core principles of comprehensive reform. To his credit the President has called for comprehensive legislation and "an immigration system worthy of America." Now he must demonstrate his commitment to those principles and lead Republicans toward achieving that goal so that, not as Democrats or Republicans but as Americans, we can honor our history as a nation of immigrants and strengthen our future and leadership in the world.
The President has said that no one element of immigration reform can succeed without a comprehensive approach. The Committee-reported bill last year took a comprehensive approach. The Senate-based bill took a comprehensive approach. The House-generated bill that the President signed just before the election did not.
Our broken system has fostered incongruities from coast to coast -- from our biggest cities to our smallest towns, and from our factories to our farms. Reform is overdue. We must be realistic about the millions of undocumented people in this country. We need to bring people out of the shadows. When we provide opportunity for people to be responsible, the vast majority will be and we will all be the better for it. We can and should do everything necessary to protect opportunities for our domestic workers. We need to reduce illegal immigration by reforming our temporary worker programs to allow more access to the unfilled jobs and unmet needs in our economy. These are not either-or propositions; we can do both.
Dairying in Vermont is more than a job or an industry - it is a way of life. Our agricultural economy depends on the hundreds of millions of dollars dairy farmers bring to our state every year. But that way of life is threatened when family dairies cannot find help to milk the cows, deliver calves and keep up with chores. Finding help on the farm is becoming increasingly difficult for hundreds of Vermont farms. Many have turned to migrant workers from Mexico and Central America. Currently, Vermont dairies are depending on an estimated 2,000 foreign workers. We know there is something wrong with this hodge-podge arrangement, and we need to do better. We need to bring order and common sense to a broken system. Vermont dairy farmers should not have to choose between saving their family farms and obeying the law.
The President has acknowledged that "you cannot deport 10 million people who have been here working." He said at the Southern border last August: "It's unrealistic. It may sound good in certain circles and political circles. It's not going to work." He went on to outline what he called "the best plan" for those here illegally. He recommended saying to them: "If you've been paying your taxes, and you've got a good criminal record, that you can pay a fine for being here illegally, and you can learn English, like the rest of us have done, and you can get in a citizenship line to apply for citizenship. You don't get to get in the front, you get to get in the back of the line." He called this a "reasonable way to treat people with respect and accomplish what we want to accomplish, which is to be a country of law and a country of decency and respect." I agree, and those were precisely the elements contained in the Committee and Senate bills last year.
Our mission must be to create an immigration system for the 21st Century that honors the great history and tradition of our nation and secures our future. What we must always remember is that immigrants are real people who have families, and hopes, and dreams. In most cases, these are people who want to contribute, who work hard, who are striving to overcome the fortuitousness of where they were born. They contribute to our armed forces and sacrifice to protect the freedoms we have and they hope to enjoy. They contribute to our economy, to our lifestyle, and help with our most important responsibility when they help raise America's children. As the grandson of immigrants to the United States, I will work to reaffirm the promise of America's lamp beside the golden door for the poor and oppressed.