Chairman Carper Speaks on Senate Floor Regarding Comprehensive Immigration Reform

WASHINGTON – Today, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) spoke on the Senate floor in support of comprehensive immigration reform. To view  video of his speech, please click here. His statement, as prepared for delivery, follows:

“Mr. President, let me begin by saluting the Gang of Eight – Senators Durbin, Menendez, Schumer, Bennet , Flake, Rubio, McCain, and Graham –– for their tireless efforts to bring this bipartisan legislation to the floor.   I would also like to commend Senator Leahy and the Judiciary Committee for all their work to bring this bill to the floor.   I look forward to working with all our colleagues on this incredibly important piece of bipartisan legislation.

“In Delaware, we just celebrated the 375th anniversary of the arrival of the first Swedes and Finns to land in this country on the shores of the Christina River.  These immigrants came to our country many years ago for many of the same reasons that people come here today.  They came to live what we now call the “American Dream” – the remarkable idea that, regardless of your background or station in life, you can come to this country, work hard, and build a better life for you and your family. Today, nearly 400 years later, after those first immigrants settled in my home state, we’re blessed to live in a thriving and prosperous nation in no small part because of the millions of immigrants that came together to build it. We should all be proud of this history.

“As a nation of immigrants, we in Congress have a special responsibility to ensure that our immigration system is effective and reflects our values. 

“Those values are what inspire brave, hardworking, and committed people to take great chances to come to America.  They are often seeking to escape violence, to lift themselves out of poverty, or to live a better life.  These immigrants renew and enrich our communities.  They enhance our economy.  But we cannot and should not open our doors indiscriminately to all who seek to come here. We need an immigration system that is practical, effective, and fair.

“Today, however, our immigration system is broken. It is not effective in bringing in the talent we want and need to maintain a strong and vibrant economy. It does not give employers the assurance that someone they want to hire is actually here legally, and eligible to work. It does not always focus our security efforts on the real risks from those who come here with the intent to do harm. And finally, it does not address, in a pragmatic and fair way, the fate of the more than 11 million undocumented people living in our country right now – many of whom came here as children and, like us, know no home other than America.

“So how do we modernize our immigration laws in a way that is fair, practical, and makes our nation more secure?

“I’ve always said that the key to immigration reform is border security.  The last major comprehensive effort this body made to reform our broken immigration system — in 2007 — fell apart because some Senators here claimed that the border was not secure enough.  Many of my colleagues claimed, justly or not, that the border was still too porous, and that we’d be having the same debate 20 years later because of the lack of border controls.  People asked themselves: are our borders secure enough to ensure that we don’t end up having this same debate 20 or 30 years down the line?  And the answer for many of our colleagues was simply, ‘No they are not.’

“Six years later, a number of people will still argue that our borders are not secure enough to move forward with these reforms.  I disagree. When I hear our colleagues ask, “Are our borders more secure?” I am often reminded of a friend who, when I ask him how he is doing, usually responds:  “Well, compared to what?” 

“Some say that our borders won’t be secure until we stop every single person who tries to cross them illegally.  I think it is clear that this is not a realistic goal or expectation.  Take for example the border between East Germany and West Germany—and most famously the Berlin Wall. This was perhaps the most secure border that the world had ever seen: 100 miles of concrete walls, electrified razor wire, and a hundred-yard-wide ‘kill zone’ guarded by 30,000 soldiers. 

“But still, people made it safely across this highly-secured border every year.  In fact, a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that East Germany only stopped 95 percent of those who tried to cross the border and enter West Germany.  So, even a ruthless regime willing to kill its own citizens couldn’t stop desperate people in search of a better life.

“I don’t think any reasonable person believes that we should replicate the East German border strategy.  So what is the right comparison?  How about what our borders looked like in 2007?  Are our borders more secure today than they were then? You bet they are.

“How do I know? 

“Well, as Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I have held three hearings on border security already this year. 

“Perhaps even more importantly, I have visited the border and have seen the improvements with my own eyes.   Three years ago, I visited the California border, and over the past three months, I have visited our frontline border security personnel in Arizona, Texas and Michigan.  My goal was to get a firsthand look at what is working, what is not, and what more should be done to secure the border. 

“Based on what I’ve seen, there is overwhelming evidence that our borders are more secure than they have ever been—and certainly more secure than they were in 2007. 

I saw parts of our border that were overrun with undocumented immigrants as recently as 2006, when the Border Patrol agents I met with told me they used to arrest more than a thousand people every single day.  Think about that: a thousand people a day. Today, those agents told me that they have a busy day if they arrest 50 people.  In fact, arrests at the border have reached their lowest levels since the early 1970s. 

“This isn’t a fluke or accident.  This precipitous drop in arrests is a direct result of the unprecedented investments we’ve made in securing our borders over the past decade. 

“But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Here’s what several border officials and residents who are the true experts have to say about the progress we have made in securing our order.

“The truth is, we spend more on border security each year—$18 billion, according to a recent Migration Policy Institute report—than we do on the rest of our federal law enforcement activities combined. Think about that for a moment: We spend more on border security than we do on the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and the U.S. Marshals – combined. 

“Since 2000, the Border Patrol alone has more than doubled in size, and its funding has almost quadrupled.  We have built more than 650 miles of fencing along the border.  That’s roughly a third of our Mexican border.

“And to better secure parts of our border where a fence might not be as effective, we’ve deployed a number of what I like to call “force multipliers.”

“I’m talking about technology that will help the Border Patrol do their job more effectively.  In some parts of the border, this may be radars or drones.  In others, it may be camera towers or handheld systems. 

“For example, in the past several years, we have deployed roughly 300 towers with advanced cameras and radars.  We fly more than 270 airplanes and helicopters to monitor border regions and are also utilizing drones and blimps. 

“But don’t take my word for it.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  I have a series of pictures here that will show you what the Southwest border looked like in 2006 and what it looks like today.

“I also want to show some of the “force multipliers” that are helping to enhance security efforts at our borders and ports of entry. 

“These pictures are just a small sample of the massive improvements we have made along the Southern border, from California to Texas. They show us what any fair-minded person who has been to the border in recent years can tell you:  that the investments we have made are paying off.

“Now, is there more that we can do?  Of course there is.  I like to say that everything I do, I know I can do better.  This bill will make things better by doing the following three things:

“First, it sets aside an additional $6.5 billion for border security – on top of the $18 billion we spend today.  This money will be used to add 3,500 officers to our ports of entry, build new infrastructure and procure new surveillance systems and aerial support for the Border Patrol.  

“Second, for the first time in our nation’s history, we set a statutory goal for the Border Patrol to arrest or turn back into Mexico 90 percent of all those who try to cross illegally.  That is an important and tough goal, and it ensures accountability.

“Lastly, the bill calls for achieving persistent surveillance over the entire border, so we can know with a high degree of certainty how many people are trying to cross illegally.  Given the length of the border, and how rugged and varied it is, this goal will be challenging and costly to achieve—but not impossible. 

“As I have learned on my trips to the border, there is simply no “one size fits all” solution for securing the border. It really depends on the terrain, which varies widely along the border region. That is why we need to systematically identify the best technology that allows us to use our frontline agents more effectively and give them the tools they need to be successful. 

“One specific thing I have seen firsthand is that an aircraft without a sensor onboard that can detect illegal activity on the ground is essentially flying blind.  Far too many of the aircraft we deploy in support of the Border Patrol are not fitted with effective cameras or sensors.  In McAllen, Texas, where I visited last month, we’re flying three different types of helicopters—but only one of them is outfitted with cameras that can detect movement on the ground. That just doesn’t make any sense.

“Likewise, in Arizona, I saw an inexpensive single-engine C-206 airplane that had been fitted with an advanced infrared camera system, which had proven to be extremely effective and inexpensive to operate.  However, the Border Patrol has 16 more of these C-206 airplanes that don’t have any kind of sensors on board and are barely used.  We need to fix that.

“We also need to make sure the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the flexibility to deploy resources when and where it makes sense. For example, tethered dirigibles, or blimps, have proven to be enormously successful in enhancing our security efforts in places like Kabul, Afghanistan.   Just yesterday, I was speaking with our Ambassador to Mexico, Tony Wayne.  He reminded me that when he was in Afghanistan, the military found the blimps to be invaluable in providing 24/7 surveillance over vast areas, including remote regions like you see along parts of our borders.  Unlike planes or drones, they can fly in even the worst weather and they can be equipped with more surveillance tools.

“DHS needs to be able to swiftly put in place innovative tools, like these blimps, when factors on the ground change or when they see a need for a new approach to securing certain portions of our border. Congress shouldn’t hamstring them with mandates that make them less effective in carrying out their mission —including requiring additional fencing in areas where fencing simply doesn’t make sense.

“Additionally, we need to continue to develop and deploy cost-effective technologies, such as hand-held devices that allow Border Patrol agents to see in the dark. I have also seen one hand-held device called the “ELMO,” which allows officers at our ports of entry to move around and more efficiently process travelers and goods.  In the words of one officer that I met in Detroit, this device is a “game changer.”

“Now as I mentioned earlier, this bill will appropriate about $6.5 billion to continue to build on the progress we’ve made and to achieve the ambitious goals it sets for the Department.  That’s good news, and my goal is to make sure that much of this funding is devoted to these force-multipliers that can help our boots on the ground work smarter.

“Let me add that I don’t think we need to micromanage this process. We don’t need 535 Congressional law enforcement officers, so to speak; rather, we need to spell out the goals and priorities for border and port security – which this bill does – and give the Department of Homeland Security the tools, resources, and flexibility it needs to get the job done – which this bill also does. Then we need to let DHS do its job and provide responsible and robust oversight. That’s what I do now on the Homeland Security Committee, and it’s what I hope my colleagues will do as we ensure this bill is implemented strongly and effectively.

“Still, as strong as our border defenses have become, and despite how much stronger this bill will make them, we cannot defend our nation entirely at the border.  One of our witnesses earlier this year noted that we often look to our borders to solve problems that originate elsewhere.  Or, in other words, we’re so preoccupied with the symptoms that we’re missing the underlying causes, which can make finding a solution all the more difficult.  We must address the root causes that are drawing people to our country illegally in order to fully secure our border and ensure that we’re not embroiled in this same debate again in 20 years.  

“I am pleased to say that this bipartisan legislation addresses the root causes in a way that I believe is tough, practical, and fair.

“My friend and the former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute recently told me that we have to strike the right balance between enforcing security policies at our borders and ports of entry to keep bad actors out and facilitating – and really, encouraging – commerce between the United States and our neighbors to the north and south. This bill provides for 3,500 additional officers to work at our ports of entry, and that is a great start.  We also need to modernize our ports so that these additional officers have the resources and tools they need to process legitimate travelers and trade while focusing on bad actors.  Here are some examples of what we have done to upgrade our ports of entry.

“Properly balancing commerce and security  is critical because facilitating trade with our neighbors not only strengthens our own economy but also the economies throughout North, Central, and South America. Ensuring strong and stable economies also indirectly helps address one of the root causes of undocumented immigration – the search for better economic opportunities.

“For most of those living in the United States illegally, what draws them to our country – and enables them to stay here without legal status – are jobs. We need a system that makes it easy for employers to do the right thing and verify who is eligible to work. We also need to hold employers who knowingly break the law and hire undocumented workers accountable.

“I believe this legislation achieves these goals.  It requires all employers to use an electronic verification system designed to give them quick assurance that new employees are eligible to work. For many workers, the system would include a photo tool that lets employers verify that the person applying for a job is indeed the same person who applied for the worker eligibility document.  The bill also increases fines for knowingly hiring undocumented workers more than ten-fold and includes significant criminal penalties for those who systematically abuse our workplace laws.  These new penalties, including jail sentences of up to ten years, will provide a strong deterrent to unscrupulous employers who seek to exploit undocumented workers for their own gain.

“But we also need to convince those who want to come here for a better life that the way to do so is through legal rather than illegal immigration. While we crack down on bad actors who try to hire undocumented workers, we also need to make sure that employers who are playing by the rules have ample access to the talent they need to keep our economy growing, if they can’t find Americans here to do those jobs. And to encourage people from other nations to come here legally. This legislation does that by modernizing our outdated visa system to supply sufficient workers, particularly in critical areas such as high skill and agricultural employment.  These improved legal pathways for workers and their families will shrink the flow of undocumented migrants and help our border forces concentrate on the most serious threats at the border. 

“Ultimately the most effective force multiplier for securing our border is to take away the need for people to come here illegally in the first place.

“But as we address the root causes of illegal immigration, we must also address another immediate challenge: the fate of the 11 million people here without proper documentation who are living in the shadows today. 

“Some critics argue that this bill grants immediate “amnesty” to these 11 million undocumented people. I do not agree. What they get is not amnesty, but rather a long, hard path towards possible citizenship – one with many hurdles and no guarantees.

“For the vast majority of undocumented immigrants, the path to citizenship in this bill is at least 13 years long.  Just to reach the first step and become a registered provisional immigrant, individuals would have to clear multiple background checks and pay back taxes and a hefty fine. If they have committed any significant crime, they are disqualified from pursuing legal status. 

“Once an applicant has cleared this first hurdle, registered provisional immigrants must remain employed, pay even more taxes and fines, learn English, maintain a clean criminal record, and demonstrate that they are living above the poverty line. And, most importantly, these people will have to go to the back of the line and wait until all those who have tried to come here legally are processed before they will be allowed to get green cards.  It will take a minimum of 10 years before they can qualify for a green card.

“Three years after getting a green card, these immigrants would finally be eligible to apply for citizenship.  And they will once again have to pass extensive background checks in order to successfully move forward in the process. 

“So, to our colleagues who are suggesting that this bill would immediately begin legalizing the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country right now, I would simply ask: does that sound like an immediate process to you? This is not an easy path, and many, frankly, will not make it. 

“But, to me, the process we’ve laid out represents a tough, fair, and practical approach. It is certainly not something I would call amnesty.

“We also need to make sure that men and women around the world know that this nation is making unprecedented investments to improve and modernize our legal immigration system in addition to making it very difficult for folks who do try to come here illegally. We are dedicating significant resources to detaining and deporting those who try to go around the rules – roughly $2 billion a year, or $120 each day we detain someone. In fact, since President Obama took office, removals have increased from 291,000 in 2007 to more than 400,000 last year—when we returned a record number of people to their home countries.

“Our nation must also work with our neighbors to improve the process and decrease the time it takes to return  our detainees to their countries of origin. When I was in Texas, I learned about our agreement with Guatemala, where they issue electronic travel documents to people almost as soon as we apprehend them.  This process cuts down on detention times for Guatemalans from 30 days to less than a week.  That has a real, positive impact on the Guatemalan nationals that we arrest, because they spend less time in detention.  And it has saved us roughly $2 billion a year on this effort.  We should try to replicate that successful program with other nations.

I’d like to note that this legislation is not perfect.  On the other hand, there’s no such thing as a perfect piece of legislation.  While I do believe there is certainly room for constructive criticism and debate about this bill,  I  am certain that this legislation represents a vast improvement over our current system,  and I believe that we can make this bill even stronger in the coming weeks. And I plan to offer a number of amendments to do just that. But we must come to this debate with the understanding that the status quo is simply unacceptable.  If we do not modernize our immigration system to allow employers to fill the jobs our economy needs, we are hurting our children’s future while at the same time making our nation less secure. 

“And as a nation founded on the principles of life, liberty,  and the pursuit of happiness, we simply cannot tolerate a shadow economy of 11 million people who are scared to live freely, who generate black markets to produce false identity documents, and who drive down the wages of U.S. citizens.  For my colleagues who are still uneasy with legalization, I would ask this – what is the alternative?

“It is simply not practical to find and deport 11 million people. Most of the undocumented immigrants in this country today have lived here for more than 10 years.  Many have children who are U.S. citizens.  They have deep roots in our society and contribute meaningfully to our national interest. I think the American people want us to be tough, but also humane and realistic. I believe this legislation offers us that path, and now is the time to take it. 

“In closing, Mr. President, I’m reminded of something that binds all of us together. If you look above your seat, you’ll see the Latin phrase ‘E pluribus unum,’ which means ‘Out of many, one.’ This phrase adorns our nation’s seal and suggests that while we all come from many different places, we are one nation.

“With that thought in mind, I say to our colleagues:  we have a choice.  We can work together to make this bill better and adopt it in a bipartisan manner, or we can remain in gridlock and let the American people down.  I know what I want to do; I want to legislate.  I want to make our immigration system better. And, I want to show the American people that Congress can come together on an issue of great importance to our country’s economic and national security.  Let’s get this done.”