Calling for an End to Partisan Games and for Bipartisan, Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Madam President, when I was in the second grade, we were asked to line up in our classroom by the people whose family had been here the shortest period of time and whose family had been here the longest period of time.

And I turned out to be the answer to both of those questions. My father’s family went all the way back to basically before the founding of the United States. And my mother had recently arrived, having survived the Holocaust in and around Warsaw with her parents, John and Halina Klejman, who came to this country to rebuild their shattered lives.

So, one person going back to the beginning, another person recently arrived, and that’s not an unusual story for this country. That’s a usual story for this country.

It’s [an] unusual story in the world because a lot of other countries aren’t like the United States of America in this way. There’s literally no other country on the planet for which immigration is so central to its history and identity as the United States of America.

And people all over the world want to come here because we live in a country that respects human freedoms and respects human rights. They want to share in the American dream. They want to be part of the oldest democracy in human history.

We should celebrate that on this floor. We should celebrate that fact on this floor. People aren’t lining up to go to Russia. They aren’t crossing the Gobi Desert to go to China. They want to come here. That should give us enormous pride as Americans. I feel proud of that. I’m proud of that.

My grandparents were filled with joy to be Americans. I have never met anybody — I’ve traveled my state extensively and the United States extensively — I have never met a person that has a stronger accent than my grandparents had. And they’re the greatest patriots I ever knew. Not because they thought this country was perfect, but because they believed we had a way of correcting our imperfections and that they could be part of that, even though they came from someplace else and spoke a different language.

And over our history, immigration has been a uniquely American strength. Today, immigrants lead one in four start-ups. They are more than half of all STEM workers with Ph.D.’s. They are nearly three in ten physicians in this country. Nearly four in ten home health care aides.

And they are more than 70% — 70% — of all farmworkers, the men and women who work tirelessly day after day after day late into the night to keep us fed, and were doing that during the pandemic, without rest.

And while other industrialized nations have seen their populations decline and their economies stagnant, immigration has been vital to the American economy. If you look at the history of the United States for the last 150 years or so, what you see is there’s variations — sometimes we grow, sometimes we don’t — but roughly it’s 3% a year of economic growth. 2% of that is organic. 1% of that is immigration. If you cut off immigration, that’s a third of our economic growth over the years.

I think most of America understands this. I think people in Colorado understand this well. They know that immigration is fundamental to our history and to our identity, to our economy, but they also have a reasonable expectation that the government is managing immigration in a responsible way. In a way that’s consistent with our best traditions as a nation and upholds the rule of law.

After I was first elected to the Senate, Madam President, one of the first things I worked on was something we called the Colorado Compact. I stole the idea from a Republican — I think he was the Attorney General of the State of Utah. He created the Utah Compact.

And I went out with my friend, a former senator, a Republican from Colorado named Hank Brown, and we developed something called the Colorado Compact. I spent 18 months working on it, we traveled 6,300 miles around the state of Colorado. We had 230 meetings.

We talked to farmers and business owners, law enforcement, educators, faith leaders, ski resorts, Latino leaders — all of them were struggling with different pieces of our broken immigration system.

And not surprisingly, when you have conversations like that around people’s kitchen tables or, you know, in the county courthouses, we found that there was a lot more agreement on what immigration reform should look like than you would ever think possible if all you did was listen to the cable television at night or read your social media feed — neither of which I recommend anybody spending their time doing.

We developed a set of principles in a bipartisan way in rural parts of Colorado as well as urban and suburban parts of the state. We had some of the most conservative organizations in Colorado — Club 20 comes to mind — who endorsed this. And some of the most progressive immigrant rights groups who supported this.

And the principles that we developed included a commitment to the rule of law, our heritage as a nation of immigrants, and a secure border. That’s how you get a broad coalition together on immigration.

One thing we agreed on was that the issue needs more than piecemeal reforms. No state effort is a substitute for a common sense national strategy to overhaul our immigration system.

And that’s why a few years later, I was one of four Democrats who served on the Gang of Eight here in 2013. We had four Republicans and we had four Democrats. And we worked for months on a piece of legislation that became known, I guess, as the Gang of Eight bill, the first comprehensive immigration bill in years in this place. And the elements of it were aligned exactly with what we had said in the Colorado Compact. A tough but fair pathway to citizenship. The most progressive DREAM Act that had ever been conceived, much less written or voted on on the floor of the Senate. A massive overhaul of our visa system. $46 billion for border security. Not a medieval wall, not a medieval wall, but state-of-the-art military technology so we could see every inch of the border. We doubled the number of border agents in that bill. We had 300 miles — I think even more than that — of new fencing as a result of that bill.

And in a moment that today almost seems unimaginable — but this is why I want to come to the floor today, really, was to remind people of this. The pages that are here won’t even believe it. This came to the floor and it passed with 68 votes. It almost got 70 votes in 2013.

And then it went over to the House of Representatives and tragically — instead of just putting the bill on the floor and letting the House work its will — the Freedom Caucus got to exercise a veto. And they said, “If you can’t get a majority of the majority, we’re not going to let you pass this bill.”

Even though a majority of the House of Representatives wanted to pass the bill. Because there were enough people from both parties that could see the benefit of this comprehensive immigration bill.

And I realize, you know, now we’re in a different day. That was then, this is now. It was a different negotiation, a different deal, and it was a different Senate, for that matter. It was a Senate, thanks to John McCain, that occasionally worked, and others like him.

I think that we have got to figure out a way to get past this log jam and toward a solution where we honor our heritage as a nation of immigrants, we secure the benefits to our economy of a working immigration system, we comply with the rule of law, and we give the American people confidence that our border is secure. None of that is an unreasonable expectation. But we’re nowhere meeting that expectation today.

Instead, politicians have used our broken immigration system as one more issue to bludgeon the other side, to not make progress. That was the theory of the people that killed the bill in 2013, is that they could get more out of the politics of not passing the bill than they would by passing the bill.

And I actually think, I think they got more than they were even bargaining for. They couldn’t have imagined when they voted against that bill that they’d end up nominating a presidential candidate who rode an escalator down into his building talking about how Mexicans are rapists, and that guy not only was nominated, he went on to become president of the United States.

Staggering. Staggering. I think there’s some question about whether American history would have changed in really profound ways if we’d been able to pass that comprehensive bill. And the cost has been just terrible for the country — our inability to do it. Our businesses are desperate to hire computer scientists and engineers, but because our Visa system is broken, Madam President, we’re literally training PhDs and sending them back to countries like India, China, or to Canada.

We’ve got dreamers that are living in perpetual fear, unable to plan for their future, in the only country that they’ve ever known. We have — this Senate has been unable to deal with the issue of the Afghan interpreters, because…who are people that fought side by side, worked side by side with our soldiers in Afghanistan, because of our broken system and the politics around immigration.

In Colorado, we have a $47 billion agriculture industry. It is the lifeblood of our state. And I’ve met vegetable growers in Brighton and peach growers in Palisade who don’t have enough labor to harvest the crops, and the system is broken.

We fixed that in 2013,too. I negotiated that with Orrin Hatch, God rest his soul, and Marco Rubio, and Diane Feinstein — that’s who negotiated the agriculture provisions of the bill. And in Colorado it’s not just farmers, you know. We don’t have enough workers for our ski areas.

Across the country we don’t have enough doctors. We don’t have enough nurses or child care providers or home health aides. We have 11 million unfilled jobs in this country right now, because the economy has come back, but we haven’t been able to fill these vacancies.

You can draw a straight line from our broken immigration system to the country’s labor shortages to some of the high prices that we see in this economy. So Americans, you know, once again, no one around here bears the burden of not getting the job done, but Americans are paying the price for an immigration system that doesn’t work. The last time that we reformed our immigration system in a comprehensive way was 1986. So for those keeping score, I was a junior in college then. I’m 57 today. So that’s an incredibly long period of time.

And that was when Ronald Reagan was president, and a lot has changed in 36 years. Today we’re in an era of mass migration, propelled by COVID, global instability, and climate change, and it’s only going to get worse.

But our immigration system, including our asylum system, isn’t built for today’s conditions. It’s one reason why we have a perpetual humanitarian crisis at our southern border. And that crisis should not be an excuse to not act. That crisis should be a reason for us to act.

And right now the administration has the resources to process 3500 migrants a day at the border, but they’re receiving 8,000 a day. And we could see up to 18,000 a day by this summer. If that happens, the money’s going to run out in July, Madam President, overwhelming any border infrastructure and deepening the humanitarian crisis that’s there.

And none of this should surprise us. There’s a surge at the border every summer, and since we know what’s coming, we need a plan. And I’m sorry to say this, but the administration doesn’t have one. I read what they put out last month. I didn’t see any benchmarks, any timelines, any accountability on implementation. I did see a lot of what I think is wishful thinking about everything being under control when they aren’t under control. That’s not what the American people believe. That’s not what public servants and organizations at the border report.

And now the administration wants to lift Title 42, which is going to make a bad situation even worse. We can’t keep Title 42 forever. It’s no substitute for a comprehensive plan. But lifting it now, before we have a plan, I think is a mistake. It’s going to erode the American people’s confidence that we have the situation at the border under control, and it is going to deepen the humanitarian crisis at the border. It is going to deepen the humanitarian crisis at the border. And by the way, part of that plan, if we had a plan, should be having a conversation, leading a conversation with leaders across Latin America to see how we can come together as a region to help people that have been dislocated by violence and by corruption.

Until we solve this in a comprehensive way, these issues are going to keep coming up, and they’re going to keep dividing us here. Today it’s Title 42, in the last administration we literally shut the government down — literally shut the government down — over a debate about whether Mexico would pay for the wall. Which, by the way, they were never going to do, and they never did. We created DACA under one president, only to see it canceled in the next presidency. We could have spared America all of this. We could have spared America all of this if we had passed the Gang of Eight bill in 2013.

We could have spared the harm to our communities and our economy, but also the harm to our democracy from the mindless political fights over the past decade when people in the Senate turned immigration into political napalm, instead of lifting it up as part of our history, an essential part of who we are. But if there’s any silver lining to our failure to pass comprehensive reform in 2013, it’s that we have clearly demonstrated that Democrats cannot fix this by themselves, we’re going to need two parties working together to do it.

And the good thing about immigration is that there are a lot of different issues, there are a lot of different constituencies, and there are a lot of ways to construct a deal. The former chairman of the judiciary committee is on the floor, Senator Leahy from Vermont. If I’m not mistaken, Senator Leahy would chair the judiciary committee when we were considering the 2013 Gang of Eight bill. And that was an extraordinary process, an open amendment process — I’ll yield for the Chairman…

(Senator Leahy speaks.)

I thank the Chairman for his historical recollection, which is 100 percent correct. And I just want to make it clear, again, how extraordinary the process was. When people…I think people in this country are entitled to believe that the way this place works is the way that old School House Rock cartoon said it worked, about how a bill becomes a law. I think people ought to be entitled to believe that is the way this place works. It almost never works that way, it did in the case of this bill and in the case of the chairman’s leadership of the judiciary. So, we just need people that are willing to work together here.

I’ve continued to work with Mike Crapo from Idaho, who is a Republican who’s been working on a deal to try to create a pathway to legalization for farm workers. And if we can do that, I don’t see a reason why we can’t raise our sights and come together as a Senate to finally fix our broken immigration system.

There is no one else to address this but the 100 senators that are in this chamber, and I’m prepared to work with any one of them — anybody here — to get it done, because we don’t have to choose between our heritage as a nation of immigrants and our commitment to the rule of law. We do not have to choose between a medieval wall and the Statue of Liberty.

And we can end the partisan warfare over immigration that has hurt our economy, our communities, and our standing in the world. We can give a real pathway to citizenship to those willing to invest in the American dream. We can secure the border. And we can make immigration the wind in our sails once again and give the American people confidence that we have a fair system in place to welcome people, like my mom and her parents, who want nothing more than to contribute to this nation and to our democracy.

Thank you, Madam President. I yield the floor.

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U.S. Senator for Colorado

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Senator Michael Bennet

Senator Michael Bennet

U.S. Senator for Colorado

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