Tuesday, July 25, 2006

In the years we have served in our respective houses of Congress, there has never been an issue on which our colleagues have been so engaged and yet so far apart as illegal immigration and border security. The bills on this issue which passed in each house are miles apart.

We believe it is imperative that Congress find a responsible solution and enact comprehensive reform. To achieve this, many small groups are meeting in an effort to jump-start the negotiations between the House and the Senate. The president is engaged, as are House and Senate members. Rightfully so. Congress cannot walk away from a problem that so affects our country’s future.

We are putting forth a proposal that we hope can be used as the basis for new discussions. Our plan is tough on border security, but it recognizes the need for a temporary-worker program that operates without amnesty and without growing into a huge new government bureaucracy.

Our plan begins with border reinforcement. The millions who come to our country seeking jobs to support their families are not a security threat to our nation, but the weaknesses in the nearly 7,000 miles of international border and 95,000 miles of shoreline have given terrorists, drug dealers and human traffickers an opening that is being exploited; this is a risk we cannot allow to continue. Part two of our plan is a temporary-worker program that is essential in order to fill jobs in our economy that are in high demand. This program would commence only after the borders are fixed. Here’s how our plan works:

First: Secure our borders

Before any new temporary-worker program can begin, our plan requires the president to certify that all mandated border-security measures are completed. The Hutchison-Pence proposal embraces the tough border-security measures of the House and Senate bills. It would add border patrol agents, drug enforcement agents and port-of-entry inspectors; end catch and release; add security fences and other physical barriers at critical points; and employ American technology, such as unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.

Second: The Good Neighbor SAFE Visa and Ellis Island Centers

When the border has been declared secure, the Good Neighbor SAFE (Secure Authorized Foreign Employee) Visa will begin. This program offers noncitizens opportunities to fill jobs that employers attest to not being able to fill with Americans at market wage.

Under our plan, the estimated 12 million people currently residing illegally in America can come out of the shadows and earn a fair living by returning to their home countries to apply for a Good Neighbor SAFE Visa. This does not give amnesty to those currently in our country illegally.

Our plan would accomplish this by setting up a system of private employment placement agencies outside the United States (called “Ellis Island Centers”), licensed by the federal government, to match willing temporary workers with jobs that employers cannot fill with American workers. The private agencies would also perform health screenings, fingerprint the guest workers and provide that information for federal background checks.

Successful applicants for the Good Neighbor SAFE Visa could enter America legally provided they meet the visa requirements.

We call it a “Good Neighbor” SAFE Visa because the program would be limited to countries that currently enjoy a positive trade relationship with the United States in our hemisphere. Only residents of NAFTA and CAFTA-DR countries will be eligible to participate in this program. Good Neighbor SAFE Visas will be issued for two years, with the option to renew them in two-year increments for up to 12 years.

Good Neighbor SAFE Visa participants are not eligible for welfare, Social Security or Medicare. All paycheck deductions will be made as for American citizens. Workers’ Medicare contributions will go into a fund to compensate hospitals for emergency medical expenses incurred while treating foreign workers. Worker Social Security deductions will be returned when a participant exits the program and returns to his or her home country. Employer Social Security contributions will remain in our country’s system.

At the end of the visa period, visa holders who have been gainfully employed with no violations may return to their country of origin or apply for a new X-Change Visa with an employer sponsor and continue working in the United States under the same conditions with no further renewals required. There is no automatic path to citizenship in the Hutchison-Pence plan. After five more years, the X-Change Visa holder would have the option of continuing to hold an X-Change Visa, returning home or applying for permanent adjustment of status.

Third: Verification and enforcement

For the system to be effective, it is necessary to implement a nationwide electronic employment verification system through which employers confirm the legality of each employee. Those who continue to hire unverifiable employees will be subject to stiff fines.

Two years after the date of enactment, employers will be required to verify the eligibility of all new employees, including temporary workers. After six years, verification will apply to all employees. While this may be unsettling to some, and there may be better ways to do it, we will never have complete knowledge of everyone who is in our country and their legal status without some capability for verification.

Good Neighbor SAFE Visas will provide businesses seeking to hire foreign workers with a secure method of confirming their legal status. If a temporary worker is fired, convicted of a crime or just disappears, the card will be canceled, preventing someone else from hiring the worker.

We have a historic opportunity to repair our immigration system. Our proposal is meant to be one set of ideas; there are many others. But there can be no disagreement on this: Congress owes it to the American people to solve this crisis. We are attempting to protect our national security while providing benefits to our country for generations to come. We urge our colleagues in Congress to come back to the table and produce a workable system. The future of our country depends on it.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is a Texas Republican and Rep. Mike Pence is an Indiana Republican.

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