A Two-Pronged Approach: More Workplace Enforcement and a Better Life for Immigrants

There is no question that the immigration system needs to be fixed, and the comprehensive immigration reform passed by the Senate after months of negotiations and by a bipartisan vote was a monumental step forward. To repair what’s broken, we faced national security and economic challenges in a way that is consistent with our values and with the great American dream. Better border control and better treatment of immigrants are not inconsistent with these principles, and both are necessary for success.

The immigration legislation we passed in the Senate addresses these issues together. We’ve tried enforcement alone in the past, and it has failed. In the past 10 years, the federal government has spent more than $20 billion to triple the number of border patrol agents, build fences, and adopt other border enforcement measures. Yet, none of our efforts has been adequate. Illegal immigration continues to thrive. Our legislation strengthens our security through stricter worksite enforcement, tamper-proof immigration cards, and high-tech border controls. Yet, the only realistic way for us to know who is here and who is coming here is to combine strict enforcement with realistic reforms to fix the broken system.

Our legislation also protects American jobs and wages by bringing immigrants out of the shadows and requiring employers to pay fair American wages. Today, many sectors of our economy rely heavily on the hard work and contributions of immigrants. Their work is indispensable to the continued growth of the American economy, and our dependence on immigrants will be even greater in the years to come. But millions of these workers are here illegally. They live in constant fear of deportation, and are easy targets for exploitation by unscrupulous employers. They are forced to accept substandard wages and shameful working conditions, which in turn, makes it even harder for American workers to thrive. Our legalization program will enable decent men and women who work hard and play by the rules to earn the privilege of American citizenship. We can be both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. Our goals are clear: to bring immigrants out of the shadows, shut down the black markets, and restore the rule of law at our borders, in our workplaces, and in our communities.

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By providing an adequate flow of legal workers and implementing strict new workplace enforcement provisions, our bill will greatly reduce unfair competition and downward pressure on American wages. Temporary workers and newly-legalized immigrants will be able to labor with dignity and bargain for wages and benefits under the full protection of our laws, making life better for them and for U.S. workers alike. Our plan offers a realistic alternative, not an amnesty. There is no free pass, no automatic pardon, no jump to the front of the line. But we do provide a sensible plan to encourage people to come forward to receive work permits and earn legal status. They will have to pay a substantial fine and go through rigorous security and criminal background checks. Those who want permanent status must pay all their back taxes, learn English, maintain a strong work record, stay out of trouble, and wait their turn.

The legislation we’ve passed combines increased enforcement and increased legality. Better border control and better treatment of immigrants are not inconsistent – they are two sides of the same coin, and neither can be accomplished in isolation. This is the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history. It is a comprehensive and realistic attempt to solve fundamental problems that have plagued our immigration system for far too long.

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Health-Education-Labor-Pensions committee, and the highest-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. He was elected in 1962 to finish the final two years of his brother's senate term and has now served 43 years. A Harvard graduate, he served in the U.S. Army from 1951-1953.