Senators Hold News Conference on Immigration

CQ Transcriptions
Thursday, April 6, 2006; 12:48 PM














FRIST: Good afternoon. We have several senators with me now. Other senators will be coming in. 

We're just completing our vote. But wanted to go ahead and get started to really make a very important announcements. And that is the American people are well aware of the challenge that we have today in terms of having an immigration system that is flat out broken, broken at the borders, broken interiorly, at the level -- at the place of the work site and also in terms of a temporary worker program. 

In October of last year, I set out a two-week plan that is being fulfilled this week, where we would start with a strong border security bill, build that out based on the tremendous work under Arlen Specter's -- Senator Specter's tremendous leadership -- build that out with a more comprehensive bill looking at work site enforcement, interior enforcement and a temporary worker program that does address the 12 million people who in this country are undocumented. 

The good news is that because of the hard work of the people who are with me, we've had a huge breakthrough which will allow us to pivot in the next several hours that will lead us to the conclusion of passing a very important bill. 

I'm going to turn it to my colleagues, I guess initially Senator Specter and then -- I'll turn to Senator Specter and then Senator Kennedy to reflect what this alternative that has come forward is all about and the implications for the country, but also for the 250 million, 300 million people who will be affected both now and people in the future. 

SPECTER: The leader... 

FRIST: Anybody else?

SPECTER: Well, I don't know who'd have to say anything more if Senator Reid is here. 


Senator Frist has accurately characterized the situation as a breakthrough. And the presence of the senators who are here today, both Republicans and Democrats, and the leaders and the ranking member of Judiciary, we have worked through a great many problems, starting with McCain-Kennedy and Kyl-Cornyn and the Hagel legislation and I think we produced a good bill, but not a perfect bill. 

SPECTER: Regrettably, we haven't been able to have amendments offered to it, so we needed some modifications, and the ideas have come forward from Senator Hagel and Senator Martinez making distinctions between the undocumented aliens who have been here more than five years and those less than five years. And while it admittedly is not perfect, the choice we have to make is whether the bill is better than no bill. And I think that is decisive. 

We've made enormous improvements over what the House has done with our treatment of a comprehensive bill and the aid given for humanitarian assistance and not making so many felonies and moving toward balance. 

So I think we're on track to get a bill in relatively short order. 

REID: We're gathered here on the third floor of the Capitol with all you folks here, but you know the real people that are watching this are people in Las Vegas who, as I speak, it's 8:30 in the morning. They're getting ready for the first round, the 21st floor of the MGM Hotel to make the beds, to pick up the mess from last night. They're working in the kitchens in Las Vegas, cleaning the grease pits, they're parking cars. 

These are jobs that they have wanted and wanted them badly enough to come to America, to leave their families, their homes, their churches, their schools to come here and take a chance on the American dream. 

So even though we all feel good about today, it pales in comparison to the millions and millions of people out there who today feel that they have a chance to participant in the American dream. 

Now, we're not there yet. We can't declare victory. But we've moved a long ways down the road. The movement has taken place by inches. But as with everything, it's the last few inches that count. 

And we're almost there. We're not there. We still have some obstacles. The leader and I have spoken about them the last few hours. There's other pieces of legislation that may interfere. We have some amendments we have to vote on that are going to be hurtful to some people and not to others. 

REID: But it wouldn't be fair if I didn't acknowledge what I believe are some legislative heroes with this. 

First of all is Specter and Leahy. That Judiciary Committee is producing, is producing as it hasn't produced in years and years, and basically it's because of their relationship. 

And I also want everyone to know here that the work that's taken place behind the scenes for the last week has been what legislation's all about. These people in the back rooms doing the drudge work, they don't get the attention that Senator Frist and I get when we're out there, as I've said, like a couple of running big horn sheep batting our heads, but they're the ones that allow us once in a while to raise our arms and declare victory. 

We're not there yet, as I've said. But hopefully -- hopefully -- the next 24 hours there will be occasion for real celebration. 

LEAHY: I'll be brief. 

One, leader, I thank you for the comments about Senator Specter and myself. We do have a close personal relationship. We have tried to move a lot of significant legislation. I told both leaders (inaudible) could we have something on the floor of the Senate that didn't have to go through Judiciary? Make me long for my days in Agriculture. Not that much, but you do. 

We worked extraordinarily hard to get a bipartisan bill out of the committee. That was no easy task. It meant hours. It took time during recess, time at late night sessions and all. Senator Specter held us together in that. We were able to do it. 

Obviously that's the bill I would have preferred. We're not going to have that bill. I think the steps we've taken now indicate the same things that we did during the committee markup. We find ways of moving forward. It's a small step, but a very, very important step. The devil's always in the details, and we'll see what the details are. 

LEAHY: But for people like myself, who are only one generation away from immigrant grandparents, I feel the yearnings of my grandparents and those who came first to Vermont, just as many feel the yearnings of their own families throughout the country. 

Let me conclude with this. If this is the step forward that I think it is, then let's make it that. Let's stop the name-calling. Let's stop the polemics, and especially those who are outside the Senate, who have been making everything from ethnic slurs to racial slurs and on. Let us as senators make it very clear, whatever party we're in we oppose that kind of name-calling. We're working together as senators to get a bill for America and for people who yearn to be Americans.

Thank you.

KENNEDY: Well, Americans have always had an ambivalence about immigration issues and immigration policy. We are a nation of immigrants. And when we're really at our best, we recognize the extraordinary contribution that immigrants have added to our culture, to our enterprise, to our initiatives, to our ideas. It has been profound.

But at other times, we have seen the incredible exploitation of immigrants. We think of the darker days, of the time of the braceros, which is one of the darker sides of American history. We think of what has happened -- the exploitations of many Asian during the coolee period, when they were building the -- coolees from the Far East were building the railroads of this country. Some of the cruelest kind of exploitation.

And the most dramatic aspect of American history, of course, were slaves that were brought into this country, not by their own desire, but for exploitation and the darker side of our history.

So there is enormous conflict and great emotions whenever we come to the issue in question, of dealing with how we're going to deal with challenges dealing with immigration.

And that is why Senator McCain and myself, the others that are gathered here, recognized that what was necessary is to do a comprehensive kind of approach, which hopefully this legislation, when it's finalized, hopefully by the end of the week -- and I think our leader, Senator Reid, has outlined both the opportunities and the challenges that still remain -- will send a very clear message to a very important group of individuals that are here -- and that is that if you work hard; you're devoted to your family; you play by the rules; you pay your taxes; and you work toward the American dream, that you can be included, too, as our grandparents and great grandparents have in the past.

Americans admire those qualities, those qualities of hard work, playing by the rules, devoted to your children, and devoted to the community. Those people that are out there today, the 11 million, we're sending a message, that is, you are going to be welcome. And you won't have to live in the fear in the future.

MCCAIN: Obviously, I'd like to thank our leaders who are responsible for the shepherding of this legislation through. I'd especially like to note the work that Senator Kennedy has done on this issue. It's been a privilege to work with him. 

And we've had an honest and intense series of negotiations, with the assistance, particularly, of the individuals who are right here, and I want to thank every one of them.

I especially think that the Senate is enriched by the presence of Senators Martinez and Salazar, both of whom bring to us a perspective that's very important on this issue.

MCCAIN: Like to thank my friend Chuck Hagel. He, along with Senator Martinez, came up with a compromise that I think has moved this issue off the dime.

I'd like to point out we still have obstacles ahead. One is the conference. Another, of course, are pending amendments that would have the effect of basically gutting this compromise.

And so we do have a lot of work ahead of us. But I think that this comprehensive approach, when most Americans are made aware of what we have done here so far and what I believe -- I am very optimistic that we can accomplish -- will meet the approval of the majority of our citizens.

That's what the Senate is supposed to do. This is how the Senate is supposed to act. And, unfortunately, we don't do nearly as much as we used to.

We've been in conversations with the White House and the president. The president will make an announcement at 12:30 that is supportive of this compromise, and he will be on camera later on in the day as he is traveling.

I'm very grateful for the participation of the president of the United States, who has sought a comprehensive solution to this issue.

And, again, I want to thank my colleagues, recognizing that we have obstacles ahead, but I think this kind of compromise has the kind of momentum that will see us through.

HAGEL: Well, let me just add that I am privileged to have had an opportunity to participate in framing a piece of legislation that I think is in the best interest of this country and allowing me an opportunity to work with some of America's distinguished leaders.

Thank you very much.

MARTINEZ: I've had an unusual opportunity to work on something that obviously touched my life very deeply and very profoundly, which is my own voyage as an American. 

Not having been born in this country, but then moving on to citizenship, I understand the plight of immigrants. I understand what this has been about. I also understand about the rule of law, and I respect that.

I want to just thank all of those who have worked on this issue for many years, long before I got here. And I'm delighted that I've been able to add a contribution, working with Senator Hagel and others, to ensure that this moves forward toward a conclusion.

I'm just immensely pleased for the potential outcome that we can have here and how much good it's going to do, not just for a lot of people who desperately want to see this happen, but also for the good of this country, the good of bringing this country together, of pulling us all together, allowing all Americans and all who want to be Americans to join in the American dream.

OBAMA: A couple people I just want to congratulate. I think Ted and John McCain set up the framework in which this bill could move forward. And they're the first people to be congratulated.

The second thing I want to congratulate the Judiciary Committee and Arlen Specter for the outstanding work he did. And then, since the Judiciary meeting, there has been a series of meetings, coordinated by John and Ted, specifically I want to cite Lindsey Graham, Sam Brownback, Mel Martinez, Ken Salazar, myself, Dick Durbin, Joe Lieberman, who have had to wake up early -- anybody I'm missing -- who've actually had to wake up early to try to hammer this stuff out. And then Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez coming together with the final framework. 

The only point I would make -- and I speak for myself, but I think this also is something that is of concern to the Democratic caucus. If the compromise that's been discussed and has the agreement of those who were in this room, if that ends up being the bill that is signed into law, it's a win-win for everybody. And I think both Democrats and Republicans will be proud.

There is concern within our caucus that if there are a series of amendments that are offered to gut the bill or if you go into conference committee, it gets hijacked and comes back in a much weaker version, that it would not represent a success, it would not represent the values of the American people. It wouldn't represent the right balance between security and making sure that we're bringing people out of the shadows and giving them a pathway to citizenship. 

So I just caution that we're trying to figure out some mechanism by which we can have an assurance that the bill that we've agreed to is actually the bill that gets voted on and is the bill that the president signs. Trying to sort that through is, I think, what we're going to be working on over the next several days.

DOMENICI: I just want to say that it's been a real privilege to work on this. I think some of you know that I had a real-life experience with reference to living in a family with an illegal alien who was my mother. It turned out that was unknown to all of us, because we didn't know that she was an illegal alien. But we lived through many years of her life, and then she was arrested in the Second World War as an illegal alien of Italian descent. 

DOMENICI: So I understand how all of this works in terms of a family and family roots, and what I see in this bill is an opportunity to offer to those illegal aliens in our country something that they can say is good enough for them to come out from their hiding places and say, "We're going to trust America and once again see if America will let us seek our dream."

If this is not a good enough offer to get them to put up their hands and say yes, then we have failed. But I think it is. I think they are going to look at it and say, "America has offered us something worthwhile," and they're going to join. That's what's important, I think.

GRAHAM: We still have broken borders, ladies and gentlemen. The broken borders need to be fixed. But we no longer have a broken Senate.

And I think what's happened here, Senator Frist deserves much, much credit for taking what I think has been the hardest political issue I've dealt with and getting it to this point, along with everybody working with him.

Chairman Specter has delivered yet again. And this whole process to me has been unbelievable. 

And how would you characterize this? I think we've reached a plea bargain with 11 million illegal aliens. I think we've got what is akin to a plea bargain that understands it's a nonviolent offense and you got a probationary sentence that's tough but fair.

And for those out there who want people to pay a price for breaking the law, you pay a price. For those out there who want 11 million people to come out of the shadows and earn their right to be part of the American family, you have also been satisfied.

So this is a plea bargain that I think recognizes what kind of offense we're talking about. And if we can follow the probationary terms, the 11 million, it will be a win-win for America.

LIEBERMAN: Before this moment, the most satisfying moment of my recent life as a United States senator was the so-called gang of 14.

Today, I think we have a gang of about 65. And that makes me feel a lot better about the prospects of what's going to happen.

LIEBERMAN: We have come together to do the right thing. The compromise that we have effectively agreed upon will transform the life of our country and millions of people who live in it. It will improve our nation's security and economy, and it will give millions of people who live here today the opportunity to be what they have dreamed of being and want to be, which is Americans.

And the great thing is that it obviously happened across party lines. It started with McCain and Kennedy. It was picked up and expanded by Specter and Leahy. The rest of us are privileged to be part of this extraordinary moment. Thank you.

BROWNBACK: Last and least, two quick things. One is, this is probably the most divisive issue in America today, and I hope this compromise ends up bringing us together, and I believe it can.

Number two, those that would refer to this, what we do with the 11 million, as amnesty, I would call it probation. 

It has a much more analogous view to probation. You're granted a probationary status, provided that you do a whole series of things: pay your back taxes; pay a fine; get a job; demonstrate English. There's a series of things that you must do. And that's akin to probations. 

I think that's appropriate for those who have violated the law and have a penalty to pay, and we put it here for them.

I congratulate all of those involved.

MARTINEZ: Mr. Chairman, now that everyone has had a chance to hear this in English, I think an awful lot of Americans that only speak Spanish would like to here what we're talking about. So I've been asked by the (inaudible) Tele Mundo and others to say a couple of words in Spanish. So I'm going to just pretty much repeat what I said.



MCCAIN: Every immigration expert that I know of say this is a workable solution. And any solution is difficult to implement, but they certainly prefer it to 11 million people washing around America who are here illegally and no resolution of their status and broken borders. 

So, sure, there's some complexities associated with it, but as compared with the status quo it's Nirvana.


MCCAIN: We're going to work through amendments. The two leaders are working right now. So it probably is better if you discuss it with them. But it's basically try to narrow down the amendments, have votes, and move forward with final passage. And it's going to be difficult, but the two leaders -- my understanding, and you'll have to talk to them -- are working together on getting that done.

QUESTION: What amendments concern you the most?

MCCAIN: They all concern me.

QUESTION: The Democrats are wanting some sort of guarantee that when it goes to conference it won't change. Is there any way to offer that guarantee?

MCCAIN: Well, there's a group of us that may sign a letter -- we're working on a letter that would guarantee that we would vote against a conference that -- Republicans (inaudible) that would guarantee that we would vote against a conference report that destroyed this very delicately crafted compromise.

QUESTION: Senator, can you walk us through what exactly it means that there would be people who have been here for two years, more than two years, less than five years (OFF-MIKE)? 

MCCAIN: I'll let Ted describe it to you, but it's exactly as you describe.

QUESTION: And what exactly are they applying for?

KENNEDY: Well, we have under the McCain proposal, and also out of the Specter proposal, we established a line, a dateline at the time of the -- which is effectively two years (inaudible) assuming that this is.

So this provision applies to individuals that would have been here for the next three years, OK, the next three years. So it's the last five years. But two years wouldn't be covered (inaudible), so it's basically three years.

You're working for a landscaper in Sarasota, Florida, and over a three-year period you go back on home to Mexico for your Christmas time, you'll have a card, so you'll be able to go back and get back into the United States, is a major factor.

KENNEDY: And you go back to your landscaping in Sarasota. But the real difference in terms of how these people, individuals, are treated, and those that are here more than five years, is the availability of the green cards, which are under another provision of the act, which has been increased to 425,000, with the priorities going to these individuals.

And the best judgment now is that that would probably extend, for these individuals, unlike those individuals here five years or longer, probably extends their opportunity for earned citizenship, probably two to three years, possibly four, maybe less. Maybe less.

But that is primarily the distinction between how you're treating the two groups.

When the amendment was initially introduced, it was basically when these individuals came on out, they would have had to apply under the green cards, and they would not have been able to earn their citizenship for 25 or 30 years, which undermined for many of us the basic concept of the program, and therefore there would be less interest for them coming out, and therefore they probably wouldn't have come out. And you're distinguishing and treating a group differently.

So I think that's very important.

The other important aspect is this is just limited to the heads of households, so our best estimate is probably 3 million people, but this is just the head of the household. It relates to others, the juniors, the younger members of the families or other members of the families -- well, whoever's the head of the household is the one that comes back and also makes the -- can fill in the requirements for the other members of the family. 

And that's all been -- that was acceptable, as well as the expanding -- they wanted to make sure there was going to be a distinction -- and that was the basically compromise -- many of us didn't want to have this wide kind of distinction. We think that the two years to three years is certainly -- I would certainly urge the support for it, given all the other provisions of the legislation.

Let me just say, I think it's been mentioned here by Senator Obama. I think the conference is enormously important. I think we have come too far with the legislation, Senator Specter and others. That was a 12-6 vote. I don't know what the shape of the conference will be. That will be decided by the leadership. I'd hope it would be the whole Judiciary Committee. 

KENNEDY: But we had a very strong bipartisan participation. These are individuals who know this issue, and they are taking it very seriously. 

And I think with the kinds of assurances that Senator McCain just talked about in terms of maintaining the basic integrity of this proposal in a comprehensive form and in the shape we have, I think the prospects of getting something very important in terms of finally signed into law.

MCCAIN: We've got to go. We've got to go.

FRIST: Thank you. Thank you very much. 


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