DeFazio responds to immigration concerns

I am deeply honored to have been selected as PSU’s commencement speaker and to be granted an honorary degree. I look forward to celebrating the tremendous accomplishments of graduates, along with their families, friends and the university community.

In response to my selection as commencement speaker, some students have expressed concerns about my selection, due to my vote on H.R. 4437, immigration reform legislation.

I have a long history as a progressive populist in public office, defending civil liberties, fighting for increased student aid, improving access to educational opportunities, working to shift power from corporations and the wealthy to average Americans, and leading efforts to stop unjust wars. And I have donated $194,000 from congressional pay raises that I do not accept to fund 157 education scholarships at schools throughout my district. I am proud of my record.

It seems that much of the concern about my vote in favor of H.R. 4437 is based on a misunderstanding of my views and the legislative process.

First, in order for a bill to become law, the identical text must pass both the House and Senate. If the House and Senate approve different language, a conference committee must be created to negotiate a final bill, which will be subject to another vote. The immigration legislation approved by the House will not be signed into law. The Senate reforms are very different, and the two approaches will have to be reconciled.

Second, in the House, the majority party, currently Republican, has total control over what legislation and amendments are allowed to be debated and voted on. I had no control over what legislation was on the floor. My choice was between the House bill, which contained strong and necessary border security improvements and employer sanctions, or maintaining the status quo. Annually, more than one million immigrants are captured trying to enter the U.S., 500,000 or more annually elude capture and make it into the U.S. illegally, and 10 to 12 million already live here illegally. In my opinion, the status quo is not sustainable.

There are some objectionable provisions in H.R. 4437 that I opposed.

H.R. 4437 would turn the 10 to 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally into felons (currently, “unlawful presence” is a civil violation, not a criminal felony). I did not support this change, and the Republican leadership in Congress indicated this provision will be dropped from any final bill.

The bill also has a provision to combat coyotes involved in smuggling immigrants. As I said in my Dec. 16, 2005 statement on the bill, this provision is written in an overly broad way that could penalize the everyday actions of social service organizations, churches and others who provide humanitarian aid and counsel to immigrants. Chairman Sensenbrenner has indicated this is not the intent of his provision. I believe it must be narrowed specifically to smugglers.

My principle reason for supporting the bill despite its faults is the strong penalties on employers who take advantage of undocumented workers. Without such penalties, unethical employers will continue to exploit workers, pay poverty wages (or withhold them altogether), and force workers to toil in dangerous conditions. H.R. 4437 requires employers to verify workers’ eligibility for employment with federal officials rather than allowing a simple glance at documents that are easily forged. The bill doubles fines for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers to $5,000 for a first offense and up to $40,000 for subsequent offenses.

I also supported the bill because it improves border security by deploying increased personnel, requires enhanced technology to prevent and detect illegal entries, and makes it easier to deport those caught entering illegally.

Some critics complain that H.R. 4437 does not contain a guest worker program for new immigrants or legalization provisions for undocumented workers already here. I do not support a blanket legalization program that would treat every immigrant the same regardless of how long they’ve been here or what they’ve contributed to their communities. The status of someone who entered illegally last week should not be the same as someone who has been in the country for a decade, gainfully employed and paying taxes.

Nor do I support new guest worker programs that would lead to the importation of hundreds of thousands of additional foreign workers every year. That is the dream of corporate leaders and is a formula for job insecurity, union-busting, immigrant exploitation, and depressed wages and benefits for American workers and legal immigrants.

I question the feasibility of processing the millions of applications that would be created by massive new guest worker and legalization programs, and have serious concerns about the impact such programs will have on the four million immigrants waiting in line to legally enter the U.S.

While far from perfect, H.R. 4437 opened the door to further debate and possible legislation to deal with the important issue of immigration. As I have always done on the nearly 12,000 votes I’ve cast since being elected to Congress, I will carefully review all of the provisions of any conference compromise before casting my final vote.