Since there’s still no "comprehensive immigration reform" bill in either the House or the Senate, there's a lot of uncertainty about what a final bill may look like. But one thing is becoming clear; there are lots of opposing opinions on what should be and shouldn’t be in the bill, and those differences were on display during Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
From border security to a guest worker program to same-sex couples to family-based immigration, there wasn’t a whole lot of agreement among the 17 Senators on the Committee.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano was on the first of two panels, and as expected, most of the focus was on border security. The border has been a contentious issue for a long time, but it's really gained attention since the Gang of Eight released its principles that say the border must be secure before the nation’s 11 million illegal aliens can begin a “path to citizenship.” Sen. Rubio made this point clear during his rebuttal to Pres. Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday night, but Sec. Napolitano called the border an excuse to not pass “comprehensive immigration reform.”
I often hear the argument that before reform can move forward, we must first secure our borders. But too often, the border security first refrain serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems. It also ignores the significant progress and efforts that we have undertaken over the past four years. Our borders have in fact never been stronger.
-- Sec. Napolitano
It was obvious that Sec. Napolitano was talking directly to Sen. Rubio in her statement, and Sen. Rubio did respond later with a statement reiterating his position on the border. But it still leaves him in a precarious position. He’s insisted on the Senate floor, in radio and television interviews, in op-eds, and now on prime-time national television that the border must be secured before illegal aliens can earn a path to citizenship.
The good and the ugly with Sen. Graham
Sen. Lindsey Graham had some strong moments during his questioning of Sec. Napolitano, but also had a very bad moment. While he left most of the border security questions to Senators John Cornyn and Jeff Sessions, Sen. Graham did get Sec. Napolitano solidly on the record in favor of mandatory E-Verify.
Sen. Graham asked, "You could build a 100 high foot wall, but if you're getting a job pretty easily on the other side of the wall, people are going to go above it, around it, or underneath it. E-Verify, controlling employment, is a virtual fence all in its own, isn't it?"
Sec. Napolitano responded, "I think it is, yes."
Sen. Graham: "One of the key components if we're going to do this is employer verification. Would you agree with that?"
Sec. Napolitano: "I would agree, and I would suggest that the E-Verify system now is far different from the E-Verify system of the past."
But then Sen. Graham started to delve into a more touchy subject - guest workers. As Sen. Graham noted, it was an issue that was left out of Pres. Obama's State of the Union address and his Las Vegas speech a few weeks ago.
Sen. Graham: "Temporary workers. The one thing the President didn't mention last night was a temporary worker program. If I had to bet where this thing could run into a real road-block, it wouldn't be a path to citizenship as long as it's earned and it's not a special pathway. It's not border security because we're all signed up for that. E-Verify or some kind of new system that would control employment, we're all signed up for that. But here's the bridging point, temporary workers are needed in the future. A legal source of labor for American employers. Do you agree with that?"
Sec. Napolitano: "Yes, that concept is one that I could agree with."
Sen. Graham: "The goal is not to displace an American worker. You can only get a guest worker where there is no American worker available at a competitive wage."
Sec. Napolitano: "The devil is in the details. You have to have appropriate protections for American workers and indeed for workers who are coming in to work."
The Obama Administration has been trying to publicly avoid the guest worker issue while the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO try to hammer out the details of an agreeable program, but Sen. Graham was able to get Sec. Napolitano on the record in favor of a program. It was a guest worker issue that helped kill the 2007 Bush-Kennedy-McCain amnesty, so it's no surprise that the gust worker issue will again be a "road-block."
It was also nice to hear Sen. Graham speak up for unemployed Americans and the danger posed by high levels of immigration on the unemployed. It's been a topic that hasn't gotten much attention since the immigration issue came to the national stage this year. He should have stopped there, though.
Sen. Graham: "Demographically as a nation, we're changing. There are three workers for every Social Security retiree today. In 20 years, there will be two. Do you agree with me that the demographics of America are changing, and we are going to need a more robust legal immigration system?"
Sec. Napolitano: "Yes, and as I said in my opening statement, it is part of economic growth."
Sen. Graham then pushed for stapling a green card to the diploma of foreign students that graduate with advanced degrees from U.S. universites and colleges, which Sec. Napolitano said she supported. So while the exchange between Graham and Napolitano put E-Verify and consideration of America's unemployed on the table, it ended with both agreeing that we need more legal immigration.
An unlikely champion
Sen. Dianne Feinstein isn’t exactly known for her opposition to amnesty, but she at least showed some understanding of what concerns need to be addressed before an amnesty can be passed in Congress.
First, Sen. Feinstein asked about the yet to be completed entry/exit system. She said she was earlier told that an exit system would be completed last year, but it's still not in place and there's no progress to report.
As you know, the Department has failed to meet both May and June deadlines. Could you give us a quick update, and when are we going to get the exit and entry system in place?
As expected, Sec. Napolitano didn’t have much of an answer for Sen. Feinstein, but there’s no real way to truly end illegal immigration without an entry/exit system in place. An estimated 40% of illegal aliens came to the United States legally, but overstayed their visa. Without knowing who’s in the country and who’s left, there’s no way of ending illegal immigration once and for all.
Second, Sen. Feinstein asked Sec. Napolitano about E-Verify. She said that E-Verify would need to be mandated in any amnesty bill, but she said it’s currently unworkable for agriculture, citing the difficulty of verifying workers in the fields. Sec. Napolitano gave an encouraging answer.
I believe national implementation of some worker verification system, E-Verify is the one we have, is essential for immigration reform. It actually reinforces what we do at the border.
-- Sec. Napolitano
Lastly, Sen. Feinstein asked Sec. Napolitano about Chain Migration. Sen. Feinstein worked to eliminate Chain Migration in 1996 and actually offered an amendment to end Chain Migration to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 after it was stripped out of the original bill by Sen. Spencer Abraham.
Under current law, a citizen or a green card holder can bring in immediate family, spouse, children, parents, and minor siblings. The question becomes where we draw the line. … What do you believe is the appropriate place for this immediate family – nuclear family and how many others should be included?
-- Sen. Feinstein
Sec. Napolitano didn’t have much to say on the topic other than the Administration believes in family reunification, but that misses the point of the question. Sen. Feinstein was asking should family reunification be limited to nuclear family, should we stick with the status quo, or should it be expanded even more? Sec. Napolitano’s lack of an answer demonstrates that both her and the Administration haven’t given this topic much thought, which is somewhat surprising since it was one of the recommendations of the 1996 Barbara Jordan Commission.
CHRIS CHMIELENSKI is the Director of Content & Activism for NumbersUSA