Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Harry Reid on Immigration - 1993 & 94


Mr. REID. Mr. President, it is truly dazzling to think about the contributions immigrants have made to this great Nation. Names like Einstein, Baryshnikov, and Greta Garbo spring immediately to mind. One of our recent Poet Laureates of the United States was the Russian immigrant, Joseph Brodsky.

And there have been so many more famous and unknown immigrants that have made America great. In the past, our immigration has been mostly European. But we have a new immigration in America today. People from Latin America and the Far East are now making their own mark on our society.

Students from the Far East are class valedictorians all across the country. Korean and Chinese small businesses proliferate and are successful, reminiscent of An Wang's great success as an inventor and businessman.

Latin Americans have made great contributions to the arts, theatre, politics, and many other areas. The Spanish language has become a part of our everyday experience. I, myself, have three sons fluent in this language.

This is what makes America America. The diversity of our public consciousness and the unity of our purpose has made us strong.

As many of us here, I and my children are from immigrant stock. My grandmother emigrated from England, and my father-in-law was from Russia. Like many of our recent immigrants, they came here, worked hard, and improved their lives.

Mr. President, today I am introducing comprehensive legislation aimed at overhauling our Nation's immigration laws. Immigration is rapidly becoming one of the most critical issues on the national agenda and one which the American people believe requires the urgent attention of Congress. The legislation which I am introducing today is aimed at addressing the growing concern on the part of the American people that our immigration laws lack a purpose and a sense of direction.

In 1958, Senator John F. Kennedy published a pamphlet entitled, `A Nation of Immigrants.' Since that time the description, `a nation of immigrants' has become almost a national badge of honor. Perhaps as no other nation before ours, we have taken people from many different cultures, religions, and races and melded them into a cohesive unit--a nation. Moreover, the United States has succeeded in creating this feat in a remarkably brief period of time.

In effect, we may have become victims of our own success. Like so many things, we have begun to take for granted the ability of the United States to absorb and assimilate large numbers of newcomers into the mainstream of American life. In recent years, we have lost sight of the fact that being a nation of immigrants is an ideal that requires effort and planning.

President Kennedy's lofty ideal is in danger of becoming an empty cliche.

Thirty-five years after the publication of `A Nation of Immigrants' it is fair to say that the United States lacks an immigration policy. Webster's defines the term policy as `prudence or wisdom in the management of affairs.' Policy also implies an overriding objective and a common understanding of what national good is being served. Yet in 1993, the United States admits a population roughly equivalent to the population of my home State of Nevada every year, and will continue to do so every year for the foreseeable future, without any clear idea of what it is we hope to achieve.

Every public policy generates differences of opinion, but those differences generally center on how best to achieve a given objective. As the Nation wrestles with the difficult issue of health care reform we will witness passionate and protracted debates from all segments of society. But at least we all agree that the objective ought to be to provide the best possible health care for the greatest number of people within the limits of our resources. The same could be said for virtually every other difficult issue that the Nation, and by extension those of us here in Congress, must deal with.

When it comes to immigration we have not even taken the first step of debating and establishing our goals. Immigration to the United States is governed by an inchoate and often incomprehensible hodgepodge of statutes, regulations, and procedures. Cobbled together over the last 100 years in the true spirit of ad hocracy, America's immigration laws utterly lack the support and confidence of the people of the United States. The time has come to move beyond the myths, shibboleths, and cliches and open a national debate on an issue that Attorney General Janet Reno has aptly described as `one of the most critical issues that we face this decade.'

There is no better place to begin than by taking a clearheaded look at exactly what America's immigration tradition has been. For years, those who have promoted expanded immigration levels and who have urged us to wink at massive illegal immigration and abuse of our political asylum laws, have argued that we must be true to America's immigration tradition. But what exactly is that tradition? Upon closer scrutiny, immigration to the United States today is anything but traditional.

From 1820 until 1965--a period that encompasses most of our history as a nation--the United States admitted an average of less than 300,000 immigrants a year. During that 145-year period we settled the frontier, fought a civil war, created an industrial revolution, engaged in two world wars, endured a great depression and ultimately emerged as the world's greatest military and economic superpower. There were ebbs and flows in immigration over this period, but taken together 300,000 immigrants a year is our true immigration tradition. And, with the exception of one relatively short period at the beginning of the 20th century, these levels rarely varied.

Contrast those levels of immigration with the numbers we are seeing today. Depending on estimates of illegal immigration, we are now resettling between 1.2 million and 1.5 million newcomers every year. There is nothing traditional, or rational for that matter about attempting to absorb the population of Nevada every year, year in and year out. When history is written, the decade of the 1980's will be remembered as a decade of wretched excess and, true to form, immigration was taken to excess as well. As we focus on reining in many of the other excesses of the preceding decade, we must not overlook immigration.

Unless serious reforms are undertaken, 15 million newcomers will settle in the United States during the 1990's. Yet we continue to act as though immigration exists in a vacuum. Not a whit of thought has been devoted to how we will meet the needs of that population. There has not been a single debate in Congress about how we will provide a first class education to all these new children, provide quality health care to the sick, secure adequate and affordable housing, ensure that there will be sufficient jobs, improve and expand infrastructure, cope with environmental degradation, or ensure domestic tranquility. In short, we are admitting unprecedented numbers of new immigrants without even a modicum of planning. We are taking a leap of faith hoping that somehow everything will work out tomorrow.

Over the past 15 years, Congress and successive administrations have acted on immigration like they have acted on the national debt. As a result, our immigration laws are in the same mess as our financial situation. The American people are angry about both the budget deficit and immigration. Nobody has asked them if they want to foot the bill for what is happening. Nobody has consulted with them about whether they want to see the social and cultural makeup of their nation radically altered. Nobody has ever asked the American people if they want to see the population of the United States grow by more than 50 percent within the lifetimes of their children and grandchildren.

In a democracy, the people have a right to be consulted on issues of vital importance to their future. Every public opinion poll done in the past 15 years indicates that the American people--of very race, religion, ethnic group, and region of the country--want to see legal immigration reduced to more traditional levels and illegal immigration brought under control. Several weeks ago, Jim Hoagland wrote in the Washington Post that immigration would soon become topic A in all the industrialized democracies. It is time, therefore, that Congress began to address this issue and the concerns of the people seriously.

It is for these reasons that I am introducing comprehensive legislation aimed at establishing an immigration policy for the United States. I wish to note that while many piecemeal immigration proposals have been introduced to deal with particular problem areas--such as asylum abuse--no other Senator or Congressman has introduced a comprehensive reform bill.

Comprehensive reform is essential for effectively addressing this critical issue. The problems with our immigration system have grown too large to be dealt with by tinkering with the margins. The troubles with our immigration process cannot be solved with a few more dollars, or a few more border guards, or by tightening up on asylum regulations. The problem is the system itself and that is why I am proposing that it be reformed top to bottom. It is time to reexamine all aspects of the issue: Controlling illegal immigration, ending abuse of our political asylum process and establishing, for a change, some guiding principles by which we can administer a legal immigration policy that is fair, rational, and which serves the interests of the United States.

Under the legislation I am proposing, we would begin to restore immigration to its more traditional and manageable levels of about 300,000 annually.

Annual levels of 300,000 would restore immigration to more traditional levels. To put the excesses of our current immigration numbers in perspective, even if we were to enact this decrease of more than 50 percent, the United States would still have the most open and generous immigration policy in the world.

Paring back immigration to more manageable levels would necessitate some long overdue changes in the way immigrants are selected. The ever-growing pressure to expand immigration levels is a byproduct of a system that grants immigration preferences to extended family members. Each time we admit a new immigrant, we expand the pool of people eligible to join the queue of those who would like to immigrate in the future. Thus, under the current system, the more immigrants we admit, the greater the pressure becomes to admit relatives who feel they have entitlement to come to America. We now have an astounding backlog of 3.4 million such people--roughly equivalent to the population of the city of Los Angeles.

What is more, people who immigrate under one of the family reunification provisions do not have to meet any objective criteria which measure whether they are likely to become contributing members of our society. Of the more than 1 million people who settle here each year, not more than about 50,000 are selected based on what they can do for the United States. We have lost sight of the fact that immigration is a public policy and like all public policies it is supposed to serve the best interests of the United States.

To both serve the national interest and reduce the pressure for ever-expanding immigration quotas, we must eliminate immigration preferences for extended family members. The nuclear family is the bedrock of our social structure and when an immigrant is selected he or she should be entitled to bring a spouse and unmarried minor children, but the United States must make it clear that there is no implicit or explicit promise that other family members will be permitted to immigrate as a result. Like other immigrant-receiving countries, the United States has a duty to set limits on the number of people who can come and fill those quotas based on an objective assessment of our own national interests.

Events in recent months, such as the hideous bombing in New York, have demonstrated that one of our most important national interests has been grossly neglected, with tragic results. Illegal immigration has become not only one of our most costly problems, but a threat to our national security. For decades, we have pretended not to see the problem of illegal immigration. The time has come to begin treating this matter seriously through a combination of enforcement and deterrence.

Twice in the past 7 years Congress has authorized increases in Border Patrol manpower and, in both instances, failed to appropriate the necessary funds. With an estimated 3 million people illegally crossing our borders every year, Congress must significantly increase the size of the Border Patrol to ensure our borders are secure. This will require roughly twice the number of Border Patrol officers we now have--an increase to 9,900 personnel. Inadequate manpower is penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Constitution requires that we provide for the defense of the Nation. As long as anyone can enter this country, at any time, for any reason, we are failing to meet this most basic of our constitutional obligations--the security of the people.

In addition to adequate manpower, we must also provide those who guard our borders with the necessary equipment to do their jobs. It is a waste of the taxpayers' money to pay Border Patrol agents' wages when their vehicles are often in such a state of disrepair that they are unable to guard our borders. How can we expect aliens to take seriously our commitment to securing our Nation's borders when Border Patrol vehicles often sit idle for lack of gasoline?

Given the other events that are taking place here in Congress this week; namely, producing a budget that makes significant reductions in the Federal deficit, the legislation I am introducing today contains a plan for paying for the increased border security I am proposing. My colleague, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has already suggested the institution of a border crossing fee to cover the costs of these needed improvements. Her idea has been incorporated into this bill. A $3 fee would raise approximately $1 billion a year to fund efforts to combat illegal immigration and expedite travel for the hundreds of millions of people who cross our land borders for legitimate reasons.

As important as improving security along the border is, however, the cornerstone of our policy to control illegal immigration must be effective deterrence. We will never be able to stop all the people attempting to enter the United States illegally as long as they believe they will be able to live and work in this country if they can successfully elude the Border Patrol.

In 1986, Congress made a deal with the American people. In exchange for granting amnesty to 3.1 million people who had violated our immigration laws, Congress promised to institute effective deterrents to further illegal immigration in the form of employer sanctions. These sanctions penalize employers who hire illegal aliens instead of citizens and legal residents. Congress also promised to establish an effective and nondiscriminatory way for employers to verify whether each newly hired worker was eligible to work in the United States.

Instead, the Federal Government has sat by idly as the deterrence factor of employer sanctions has been eroded by rampant document fraud. We have allowed ourselves to be paralyzed by specious claims that tamper-resistant, verifiable documents pose a threat to privacy and are likely to be abused. As a result a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise in forged documents has sprung up and undermined our ability to enforce the laws we have enacted.

I am, therefore, proposing that we adopt the recommendations of the General Accounting Office and begin issuing a fraud-resistant, verifiable Social Security card. Every person legally in the United States over the age of 2 is already required to have a Social Security card. There is no reason why, in 1993, a Social Security card cannot be as easily verified as a credit card or an ATM card. In a society increasingly dependent on technology, it is simply unrealistic not to employ technological means to ensure that only those people who are legally entitled to work and collect benefits in the United States actually do.

The most humane and effective means of controlling large-scale illegal immigration is deterrence. If people around the world become convinced that the United States is serious about enforcing its immigration laws and that stealing into this country will not be rewarded, many potential illegal immigrants will make the very rational decision not to try to come to the United States by illegal means This will increase the capability of the Border Patrol to apprehend those who who attempt to come here illegally anyway. Reducing the ratio of illegal border crossers to Border Patrol agents would enhance the probability of apprehension. That, in itself, would provide one more layer of deterrence.

Finally, the legislation I am introducing would take strong measures to deal with the abuse of this country's humanitarianism. The past several months have presented numerous and vivid illustrations of how our political asylum laws are being blatantly abused by people seeking to evade our immigration laws and even by organized criminals seeking to steal, cheat, and intimidate. Perhaps no other abuse of our immigration policy has raised the hackles of the American public like those blatant abuses of our immigration standards.

The abuse must be ended. At its best, political asylum today has been turned into a means by which a small number of people can jump ahead of 18 million refugees worldwide to enter the United States.

The bill I am introducing would eliminate the incentives to abuse our Nation's political asylum process by ensuring the quick and certain exclusion of those filing patently bogus claims of political asylum. The current system has simply been overwhelmed. Some 275,000 cases are backlogged and the backlog is growing at a rate of 100,000 a year. It has become such an inviting target for abuse that more than half of all applicants never even bother to appear for their scheduled hearings. Even the generous spirit of the American people can be strained to the breaking point when they realize that they are being played for suckers.

In summation, it is time for the United States to adopt an immigration policy. It is no wonder that from the cover of this week's issue of Newsweek, to the pages of every major newspaper and magazine, to the Nation's airwaves we are hearing reports of growing dissatisfaction with the way immigration is being handled. It's time to listen to what the American people are saying about immigration.

The comprehensive proposal I am submitting calls for an overall set of objectives and a plan for achieving them. It is an opportunity to open a national debate on what is becoming increasingly acknowledged as one of the most critical issues ever to face our country. Patches on the blanket won't do anymore. What we need is a new blanket.

In the coming weeks and months I will be addressing specific aspects of the immigration issues in more detail on the floor of the Senate. It is an issue that will affect virtually every aspect of life in the United States and every aspect of business conducted here in Congress. One thing seems certain: We cannot go on indefinitely adding the equivalent of the population of the State of Nevada every year to our national population base. The time has come for the United States to have an immigration policy.


See more Reid speeches on this subject at ...
27 . IMMIGRATION (Senate - September 20, 1993)

Senator Reid introduced a different measure the following year, but it contains generally the same sentiment, and is accompanied by generally the same rhetoric.

March 10, 2004 -- By Mr. REID (for himself and Mr. Shelby):

S. 1923. A bill to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to curb criminal activity by aliens, to defend against acts of international terrorism, to protect American workers from unfair labor competition, and to relieve pressure on public services by strengthening border security and stabilizing immigration into the United States; to the Committee on the Judiciary.


Senator Reid spoke again in May, advocating the contents of S.1923.

38 . IMMIGRATION (Senate - May 16, 1994)


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