| Apr 02 2006
It has become increasingly clear that we need a comprehensive plan to secure our borders and address the large number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States in a realistic and humane way. The bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a bipartisan 12-to-6 vote marks the first step forward in a difficult and consequential process to address this issue.
If this bill is approved by the full Senate, it will go to a Senate-House conference committee to reconcile differences with the bill approved earlier by the House. This reconciliation will be difficult to achieve, so it remains uncertain whether any bill can be enacted into law in this congressional session.
Any legislation approved by Congress has to take into consideration the reality of immigration to the United States today. Most of what is attempted by federal agencies responsible for administering immigration services and protecting our borders has failed more often than not. We have to deal with that failure: Employer sanctions have not worked; the borders are a sieve; detention facilities are insufficient for the numbers of people captured trying to enter the country; the Border Patrol is understaffed; and technology for surveillance and other purposes is inadequate for the job.
We now have some 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Many have been here for 20 to 30 years. They own their own homes and pay taxes. Their children were born in this country and educated here. They want to live by the law, but they have no way to do so. They are forced to live furtively, deeply embedded within all parts of America.
So, while we need stronger border enforcement, this alone will not address the enormity of the problem. The House bill, which focuses only on enforcement and criminalization of undocumented immigrants, is not a solution. Our laws need to be much more comprehensive and realistic -- we need to address the problem as it is, not as we wish to perceive it.
First, we must secure our borders.
The Senate bill doubles the number of Border Patrol agents -- adding 12,000 over five years to the 11,300 agents now in place. An additional 2,500 inspectors are added at seaports, airports and other border crossings.
Digging a tunnel or subterranean passage across an international border into the United States would be a crime. Forty tunnels have been found since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- all but one on the southern border and 20 of them in California -- yet there is no law making the building and financing of these border tunnels a federal crime.
The Senate bill also authorizes additional unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras, sensors and other new technologies to surveil the border. It allows the Department of Homeland Security to work with the Department of Defense so that the latter can carry out surveillance activities at the border to prevent illegal immigration.
The bill also meets some very real needs of our economy, which cannot be ignored. The first of these is agriculture. California is the largest agricultural state -- the industry accounts for more than $37 billion in revenue in our state alone. More than 560,000 people work in agriculture in California, yet much of the agricultural workforce is undocumented. Efforts have been made for years to get Americans to do the work, but they simply won't do it.
This bill remedies that issue by establishing a new "blue card" program that, over the next five years, would enable 1.5 million workers who are working in agriculture now to gain legal status.
Under this program, undocumented agricultural workers could apply for a blue card if they can demonstrate that they have worked in American agriculture for at least 150 workdays within the previous two years. After receiving blue cards, individuals who can prove that they have worked in American agriculture for an additional 150 workdays per year for 3 years, or 100 workdays per year for 5 years, will then be eligible for a green card.
The Senate bill also deals with a very difficult subject -- the millions of people who are not in the country legally. If they pay a $2,000 fine and any back taxes, learn English, continue to work and pass a criminal and national security background check, then they will be able to apply for a green card, but only after the 3.3 million people now in line ahead of them. It is estimated the entire process will take about 11 years.
The Senate bill brings these people -- already here and not returning -- out of the shadows. It enables them to embrace the American dream. And, I believe, it provides the only realistic option. Think about it! How would you find 12 million people, round them up, and transport them out of the United States? And even if you could put aside the moral issues involved, how could you prevent many of them from returning to the only home they know the next day? This is their home. This is where they work. And most of them have become a vital and necessary part of the American workforce.
Yes, we need to build a border infrastructure that is modern and effective -- that uses new surveillance technology, that employs adequate manpower, and that includes a fence -- such as that used in Operate Gatekeeper -- when feasible. But we also need to find an orderly way to allow those people who are already here, who are embedded in our communities and our workforce, to be able to become full members of our society. This bill does that in a realistic and humane way.