Orrin Hatch: Why I am for Supporting the Bipartisan Immigration Bill

In a speech on the Senate Floor, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), current member and former Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and current Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, discussed his support for the bipartisan Senate immigration bill (S.744). Hatch outlined the reasons why he will vote for the bill later this week, and also highlighted areas of concern in which he will continue to work to address.

“We must fix our broken immigration system, but, in doing so, we must not repeat either the substantive errors from 1986 or the procedural errors from 2007,” Hatch said. “I share the belief of most of my colleagues that the current immigration system is broken and that reform is absolutely necessary.  As I see it, the only way that we can reach that goal is to allow the process to move forward.”

The full text of Hatch’s remarks is below:

Mdme. President, I rise today to speak once again on the immigration bill before us.   

Before there was a Judiciary Committee markup, before there was an immigration bill, and before there was even a Gang of Eight, most Senators had three basic beliefs: the immigration system is broken, fixing it will be neither simple nor easy, and it absolutely needs to be done. 

I share those beliefs.  I also rely on two sets of experience. 

I served in this body, and on the Judiciary Committee, during the 99th Congress when we considered the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and during the 110th Congress when we considered the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. 

I voted against both of them. 

I opposed the 1986 legislation because it was a self-proclaimed amnesty. 

I opposed the 2007 legislation because it had been developed outside of the Judiciary Committee.

My participation in the current immigration reform effort has been informed by those beliefs and those experiences. 

We must fix our broken immigration system, but, in doing so, we must not repeat either the substantive errors from 1986 or the procedural errors from 2007. 

As we all know, most of the media and political attention has focused on the border security and legalization parts of this bill.  But there is much more to it than that. 

I initially focused on two areas. 

First, working with Senators Rubio, Coons, and Klobuchar, I focused on increasing opportunities for high-skilled immigrants.  The bill we introduced, the I-Squared bill, now has 28 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Second, working with Senators Rubio, Feinstein, and Bennet, I focused on developing the guest worker program that will be so important for the agricultural sector of our economy.   This program is the product of true compromise between farm workers and growers. 

I was glad to see it included as part of the Gang of Eight’s original bill.     

Another important provision that was made part of the original bill was my proposal for permanently extending a visa program for religious workers.  This provision will provide up to 5000 visas for foreign nationals to work with religious organizations that help America’s neediest people and underserved communities.  I have supported this program for many years and am very grateful that the Gang of Eight offered to include it in the bill at my request.

In addition, I commend the Judiciary Committee Chairman, Senator Leahy, for conducting an open, fair, and thorough markup of S.744.  Thankfully, this bill – unlike the bill in 2007 – is being handled through regular order.

During the committee’s consideration of S. 744, I filed 24 amendments, 20 of them within  Judiciary Committee jurisdiction.  I am proud of the fact that 15 of those 20 amendments were made part of the legislation that is before us now.

For example, the committee adopted by voice vote my amendment establishing strong penalties for cultivating marijuana on federal land.  Mexican drug cartels are driving the expansion of this plague, using chemicals and diverting water sources that also harm the environment.  My amendment will reduce the illegal drugs that enter the market and protect America’s natural resources.

The committee also adopted my amendment to establish a mandatory biometric exit system at the busiest international airports.  Preventing individuals from entering the country illegally is only one side of the coin – the other side is preventing individuals from overstaying their visas. 

Nearly half of those who are currently here illegally came into the country legally but did not leave when they were supposed to.  My amendment tackles that part of the equation.

I do want to respond to what some of my colleagues have said about this new biometric system.  Some have claimed that my amendment dials back current law.

Let me be clear – I fully support the biometric exit system provided for under current law.  Sadly, it has not been properly implemented. 

What good is it if legislation simply remains on paper? 

Do the critics of my amendment prefer the status quo which has accomplished nothing? 

My amendment will actually deploy a real biometric exit system, something that current law has failed to do.  And, by the way, it is fully paid for. 

Trust me, this is more than a fig leaf. 

The Judiciary Committee also adopted – once again by voice vote – my amendment to improve education and training in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. 

While foreign high-skilled workers play an important part in our economy, we need to invest more in developing the American workforce, especially the next generation.  I look forward to seeing the STEM account grow and provide hundreds of millions of dollars directly to the states for this critical education and training.

I am particularly pleased that the Judiciary Committee adopted a package of my amendments  establishing a coherent and constructive approach to high-skilled immigration.  These provisions will ensure that the H-1B and L-1 visa categories actually work.  I especially want to thank Senators Schumer    and Durbin for their genuine willingness to compromise because these complex issues require a delicate balance of interests.

This is the path I have pursued so far. 

From the outset of this process, I’ve made it clear that there are issues with this bill under the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee.  As the Ranking Member of the Finance Committee, I have been working in good faith to ensure that those matters are addressed in a responsible and productive way.

Toward that end, I filed amendments both in committee and here on the floor and have been working with my colleagues to get them included.

These are important issues that can’t simply be overlooked.

For example, there was the issue of whether immigrants receiving a change in status would be allowed to receive welfare benefits.  Under a long-standing provision of federal law, non-citizens, including legal immigrants, are not eligible for federal cash welfare benefits for their first five years in the country. 

While S. 744 preserved that five-year ban for RPIs, we know that the Obama Administration believes that it has the authority to permit states to spend federal welfare dollars on cash benefits to previously prohibited individuals.  In order to prevent this or future administrations from contravening federal welfare law, we needed to clarify that the Secretary of Health and Human Services cannot permit federal welfare dollars from being spent on noncitizens.

Today, I’m pleased to report that we have successfully negotiated provisions that will prevent the administration from waiving the five-year ban on welfare benefits as well as prohibiting the Secretary from permitting this type of spending.  They have been included as part of the compromise package we’ll be voting on later this week. 

Another problem with the original bill was that it did not adequately address Social Security. 

Specifically, the bill did not state how periods of unauthorized employment would be treated in the calculation of Social Security benefits. 

Once again, I have worked with my colleagues to reach an agreement on a provision that says that periods of unauthorized earnings do not count toward determining Social Security benefits.  The provision will, among other things, prevent people who did not have authorization to work in this country from going back and retroactively claiming unauthorized periods of work in which they used made-up or stolen Social Security numbers. 

This is a necessary step that will help to preserve the integrity of our Social Security system.  As with the provision on welfare benefits, this provision is part of the Leahy compromise amendment. 

According to the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, this provision will result in lower spending for Social Security and Medicare. 

While I am pleased that we’ve been able to reach agreements on these important issues, there are other Finance Committee issues that have not been addressed.

There is the issue of when those on the RPI or Blue Card pathways will be eligible for tax credits and health insurance premium subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.  I filed an amendment that would have placed these subsidies in the same category as other federal means-tested programs, which, of course, includes a five-year waiting period once an immigrant attains the status of a lawful permanent resident.

There is also the issue of back taxes.  I filed an amendment that would have required all RPI applicants to pay their back taxes as a condition of receiving a change in status. 

Neither of these two issues is adequately addressed by the current version of the legislation.  In my view, these are serious problems that will need to be fixed before the bill is suitable for the President’s signature. 

On top of that, there is still the issue of border security.  While the compromise legislation we’ll be voting on this week significantly improves upon the original draft of the bill, I believe we can and should do more.

So, as you can see, Mdme. President, there is still a number of issues that need to be resolved.  However, as I’ve said all along, this is a process.  Reporting the bill out the Judiciary Committee was one step in that process and passing the bill here on the Senate floor is another step.

I don’t think anyone should be under any illusions that, when the Senate completes its work on the legislation this week, the process is finished. 

The House of Representatives is working on its own bill with an entirely different approach.  I have already begun reaching out to my House colleagues to help address those issues that I believe are important, particularly those that fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee. 

I hope that the House will work to address what I see as significant shortcomings in the Senate bill.  And, I will work hard to ensure that those issues are resolved should the bill go to conference. 

With that in mind, I plan to vote in favor of S. 744 later this week.

As I said before, I share the belief of most of my colleagues that the current immigration system is broken and that reform is absolutely necessary.  As I see it, the only way that we can reach that goal is to allow the process to move forward. 

Once again, I’d like to commend my colleagues for their work on this legislation thus far.  While the final product is far from perfect, I believe we are on the path to reaching a reasonable solution to the problems that continue to plague our nation’s immigration system. 

I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the Capitol to move this process forward toward a successful conclusion. 

I yield the floor.