THE WASHINGTON TIMES
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, sat down with The Washington Times yesterday to discuss the immigration debate in Congress this year. This is a partial transcript:
Q. What is the fate of last year’s bill, and how do you see the immigration debate this year?
A. Border security and internal enforcement of our immigration laws, and specifically the employer-sanctions law, are the key to making the country safer, as well as preventing the Congress from repeating the mistake of Simpson-Mazzoli 19 years ago — it’s now 20 years ago, because that was 1986.
Simpson-Mazzoli was based on the flawed premise that we would solve the illegal-alien problem by granting those presently in the country amnesty and not having an employer-sanctions program that would turn off the magnet for new illegals to come across the border. And it didn’t work because employer sanctions were not enforced. So, I think 2 million illegals at that time, now the minimum estimate is that we have 11 million illegals.
And the talk of an amnesty program — the president denies his program is amnesty but I don’t think people will go home under his program if they get their temporary cards here — the talk of an amnesty program has increased the flow of illegals across the border. In 2004, there were an additional half-million.
In my opinion, the two big provisions of the bill in terms of increasing security on the border and the employer verification of Social Security numbers plan, plus increasing the fines, have got to be done and have got to be funded before Congress should even consider a guest-worker program. The border security program is based on the fence and also giving the local law enforcement officers in the 29 border counties the authority to enforce the immigration law, which state and local police do not have at the present time.
I would like to see that done nationwide, but if it works in the counties where the problem is most acute, I think we will be able to get the support to have it go nationwide. …
The verification of the validity of Social Security numbers is an essential tool to curtailing employment of illegal aliens, particularly in low-skilled, labor-intensive businesses where they congregate, like agriculture, hotels and restaurants, construction, landscaping and the like. And because a goodly number of the bad actors who hire the illegals are able to so reduce their labor cost that they either put their competition who’s doing it right out of business or drag down the wages that are paid to legal aliens and U.S. citizens, that unless we do get tough with the people who are hiring lots of illegal aliens, we’re not going to solve the problem, even with the fence and even with the sheriffs having the arrest powers for immigration violations in those 29 border counties.
And coupled with the verification is an increase in the fines, starting with an increase from $100 apiece on the first offense to $2,500 apiece, so that the fines actually act as a deterrent rather than simply being viewed as paying the fine as a cost of doing business.
I am very disturbed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce invited Mexican Foreign Minister [Luis Ernesto] Derbez to Chicago to attack my legislation and to attack me by name. And I sent a letter to him, which I did not release to the press, and I got a letter back, which I am giving to you, which admits that the Chicago speech that Derbez gave was organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
They should be ashamed of themselves because essentially what they are doing is saying that it’s OK to use fake Social Security numbers. I don’t think that anybody who is in business ought to be condoning the use of false documentation. If they continue promoting speeches by Mexican government officials, then maybe they ought to register as an agent of a foreign government under the law.
Q. Was expanding to mandatory basic pilot program your first choice for enforcement for internal verification in the recent bill?
A. That’s my first choice. As you know, a year ago, I was in the midst of fighting to get the Real ID Act passed. One of the things that was very helpful in that is the fact that there were 380,000 valid North Carolina driver’s licenses with the same Social Security number, which was nines all the way across. And that’s just in one state, and it’s a medium-sized state. It’s not the biggest or the smallest state in the union. And if you have 380,000 people who say they either don’t have a Social Security card because they can’t get one because they’re an illegal alien or they, quote, “lost it,” unquote, so they get the same number on their license, this shows how the Social Security numbers have been abused.
And one of the reasons why the Social Security Administration is now sending out annual Social Security statements to all of us with active accounts is so that we can verify whether or not somebody is using our Social Security numbers.
Q. Your bill passed with strong bipartisan support. What does that vote say about where support lies on this issue in the House, and how do you go forward with the Senate?
A. The House reflected the mood of the country. I can’t go anywhere, whether it’s in my district or anywhere in the country, without people coming up to me and saying that I’m doing the right thing on illegal aliens and immigration. I was in the Detroit airport yesterday on the way back here and there were a couple of people that said “Go to it, congressman.”
I don’t know who they are. You know, they recognized me from C-SPAN or what’s appeared on the network TV. This is going to be a question of whether the Senate listens to the people or whether the Senate listens to special-interest groups that want to keep low-paying illegal aliens in the United States for economic reasons.
And as an exercise of the sovereignty of this country, we are entitled to know which foreigners are here, why they are here, and if they do not have green cards, when they’re going home.
Q. If the Senate does have a debate and pass a bill that has guest worker on it, can that conference with your bill?
A. Sure it can conference with my bill. But the American public will not stand for a guest-worker program that amounts to an amnesty. We tried that with Simpson-Mazzoli, and not only did it fail, but it made the problem worse. And it made the problem worse because of the absence of employer sanctions. The key to controlling illegal immigration in this country is not just enforcement on the border, but internal enforcement of immigration laws, principally the employer-sanctions law.
Q. Does the administration believe that last point?
A. You’re going to have to ask them about that. We can spend billions of dollars more on the border, but if we don’t turn off the magnet of employment in the United States — albeit it illegal employment in the United States — we’re not going to be able to solve the problem.
You know, if you look at the percentage increase in the presence of illegal aliens from 2003 to 2004, the two top states are Iowa and Wisconsin, about as far away from the southern border as you can find. Now one of the reasons why Iowa and Wisconsin had this increase is that the economy in the upper Midwest is going along well, but again, they concentrate in certain types of jobs that are low-skilled jobs and are labor-intensive jobs, which means, as I repeat, the people that are doing it the wrong way and getting such a terrific economic advantage in lowering their labor costs, that they either put out of business the people who are doing it the legal way or they drag down the wages of the U.S. citizens and green-card holders who are employed by them.
Q. On the administration, in the intelligence bill from 2004 you won increases in authorization for border patrol agents, detention beds, interior enforcement agents, and the administration funded only 210 border patrol agents out of 2,000.
A. One of the things I did in putting together this bill, which was done at the request of the leadership, is that I was very insistent that provisions in the bill before it was introduced would be funded by the administration when the budget comes out at the end of the month.
And Speaker [J. Dennis] Hastert was intimately involved in that. The commitments on funding were made to the speaker, and he’s going to have to talk to that, because it was at a leadership retreat that committee chairs weren’t invited to, so I was not there. But the speaker agrees 100 percent with me that what happened a year ago in the intelligence bill with large authorizations and no funding whatsoever was embarrassing both to the administration and those of us who fought for increased assets for border protection in the intelligence bill and then were let down.
Q. Even though your bill from last month isn’t yet law, do you expect the administration will fund those positions from your bill in the upcoming budget?
A. They should start funding towards my bill because there is going to be a border security bill that is going to pass. Whether it has immigration provision or not remains to be seen. And the problem is that, if it passes in June or July of this year then the Appropriations Committee that is operating under allocations and caps is going to have to take away money from other programs in order to fund border security. By the administration putting the money for the border security in the budget that choice is not going to be forced on the Congress to make.
Q. What is an acceptable guest-worker program for you? Can it apply to illegal aliens currently here?
A. No, it cannot. Because a guest-worker program that applies to illegal aliens already here is an amnesty. Now the people who support that will say it’s not an amnesty. But if it ends up saying that you’re here illegally, and we’re going to give you a guest-worker card, even if it does not ripen into citizenship, means that you are able to stay here notwithstanding the fact that you violated the law.
And if you crossed the border illegally, you have committed a crime in doing so. One of the things in this debate and in my bill is that the overstays haven’t committed a crime and that we make it into a crime, and 40 percent of the illegals in the country are overstays who entered the country legally and didn’t go back home when they were supposed to.
But it seems to me that if you give these people the temporary cards, and the president talked a little bit about that yesterday out in Kansas, whether they are three-year cards or six-year cards or any other term, how do you get them to go back home when they expire? And we end up simply postponing the decision on what to do about illegal aliens until the end of the validity of these cards.
Q. Is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ready to handle a guest-worker program right now?
A. No, it is not. I think that that’s quite clear. The part of INS that CIS replaced ended up having their budget raided for more enforcement, and at the time of the abolition of INS, which was my bill, which was passed by the House, there were over 5 million pending petitions for immigration services for legal aliens.
Remember, CIS deals with the people who are trying to do it the right way and the legal way, rather than those who are illegal. That backlog has been cut by more than half, and we’ve been doing vigorous oversight, and I’ve been on the back of CIS. But to handle a guest-worker program, CIS is going to need to have a lot more money to be able to do that — to process the applications promptly and to issue the cards, which I think should be issued outside the United States.
And I don’t think that this should be financed by adding to the deficit. I think that those employers that do wish to hire temporary workers should pay a user fee for this service, and this way we can get the money into CIS for them to do the processing of the applications in a prompt and efficient manner, rather than simply sticking the taxpayers with the bill, which means our children and grandchildren, because you’re going to be talking about increasing deficit financing.
Q. There are reports out of CIS that not all adjudicators have the right access to the right databases.
A. I understand that, and I can say that it’s not the best, but it is much better than it was at the time the old immigration service was abolished on March 1, 2003. I visited old INS offices, and I don’t know how they could ever find a file that they had to adjudicate because there were file folders that were piled from floor to ceiling. If somebody came in and asked for some information, how they would be able to find it and pull the file out and give the person the right answer? I don’t know.
But again, you know, the long lines we’ve seen in front of immigration offices, those aren’t illegal aliens, because an illegal alien doesn’t want to be found within miles of any one of those places.
Q. Should legal immigration be increased, decreased or kept the same?
A. I can’t answer that question, and I don’t think anybody can answer that question, because when you’ve got this huge number of illegal aliens, the question is how many legal immigrants should we have. And illegal aliens provide cheap labor.
If we bring people in legally, there are not going to be as many jobs available because they’ve got green cards, they get Social Security numbers, they’re going to have to be paid the minimum wage and have the withholding taken out for Social Security and state and federal taxes rather than simply driving by one of these worker centers with a pickup truck and a fist full of $20 bills and yelling out, “Who wants a job?”
Q. Can you go to conference with the Cornyn-Kyl bill?
A. Negotiating Cornyn-Kyl between the Senate bill and the House bill will be much easier to negotiate than dealing with McCain-Kennedy, because the differences aren’t as great as with McCain-Kennedy.
Q. Are you in favor of a delayed enactment of the guest-worker provisions while the border security and interior enforcement are built up?
A. Border security and interior enforcement has got to come first. And the guest-worker provision won’t work without interior enforcement and verification of Social Security numbers. It’s as simple as that. Because, again, the market will work.
And if you’ve got the illegals out there with no interior enforcement of Social Security numbers, and interior enforcement of the employer-sanctions law, the illegal labor is the cheap labor, and the legal labor — whether it’s U.S. citizens or green-card holders, is much more expensive. Again, when you’re dealing with labor-intensive segments of the economy where you’ve got to hire a lot of workers to get the job done, going the illegal route, which is the cheap route, gives you such a competitive advantage over people in the same part of the economy that you put them out of business.
I read something in your paper I think six or seven months ago where there was a Mexican boss with a green card that ran a house-painting business. And he can’t get any jobs around here, and this is in the D.C. metropolitan area, anymore, because the people who are painting houses with illegal aliens come in with much lower estimates so they get the contracts. You can repeat that story probably several thousand times.
Q. So you could see a bill coming out that has guest worker?
A. Guest worker but no amnesty. Amnesty is not negotiable. The American public will not stand for amnesty, and amnesty didn’t work in Simpson-Mazzoli, and it’s not going to work here.
The amnesty in Simpson-Mazzoli only increased the pressure of the flow across the border because the feeling was if they can’t enforce their law now — this was 20 years ago — and have to grant an amnesty, they’re not going to enforce the law in the future, and they’re going to have to grant another amnesty. Here we are 20 years later, and that was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Q. And current illegal aliens would not be allowed to join?
A. Somebody who is here illegally now, if they wanted to become a legal guest worker, they’d have to go home and apply.
Q. How long should a temporary-worker period last?
A. I think that should be up to the employer making the application. And if the employer who makes the application for a temporary worker has to pay the fee for processing that card, he’s got an incentive to keep that temporary worker employed.