WASHINGTON — Colorado’s two Democratic senators made a sustained and occasionally passionate defense of a proposal to legalize undocumented immigrants and overhaul the nation’s immigration system from critics who said it would worsen some economic problems.
“Important for Coloradans, this legislation provides certainty for businesses and residents already legal here today. This is exactly the sort of certainty that our labor markets need,” Mark Udall said.
“There have been opponents that have come out and said, ‘this bill will cost us money. This bill will make the deficit worse.’ It’s exactly the opposite. This bill is a deficit reduction bill,” Michael Bennet said.
Udall and Bennet made those remarks during separate ten-minute speeches on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, and Bennet returned to the floor for additional comments Tuesday night. The junior senator is a member of the Gang of Eight senators seeking to rewrite immigration laws.
The proliferation of speeches underscores the senators’ determination to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. As recently as two weeks ago, Bennet had spoken on the senate floor seven times all year.
The legislation cleared a key procedural hurdle Monday when 67 senators voted to stop a filibuster of a border-security amendment.
Bennet joined 51 senators who caucus with the Democrats to vote for the proposal, while Udall did not cast a vote.
The amendment from Republican senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota would provide funding for 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border, hire an additional 20,000 border-patrol agents, and spend another $3.2 billion for border-security measures.
After his afternoon speech, Bennet walked several steps down from a top perch on the Democratic side of the aisle to the well of the Senate and to the Republican side of the aisle. Seeing Corker, he met the senator part way near the chamber and stuck out his right hand. After the two men exchanged a handshake and smiles, they huddled on the floor. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a longtime backer of legalizing undocumented immigrants, joined them.
Yet more hurdles await the bill.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has not considered the legislation, and top GOP lawmakers have indicated the bill will face a tougher slog through the lower chamber. A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is likely to give both supporters and opponents of the legislation ammunition.
The CBO analysis painted a mixed picture of the effects the immigration bill would have on the economy. While the bill would reduce the deficit over the next decade and boost productivity, it would also lower per capita GNP and average wages, the report concluded.
The CBO report found that 10.4 million new people would live in the country by 2027 if the bill became law. The deficit would fall $197 billion in the first ten years, but per capita Gross National Product would decline 0.7 percent and average wages for American workers “would be slightly lower.”
In his evening speech, Bennet said he “didn’t care about the CBO report,” but his deeds suggest that the findings of the report gave him more wiggle room to support the Corker-Hoeven amendment.
Two weeks ago, Bennet contended that additional dollars for border security would add to the budget deficit and not increase border security. This week, he and the other members of the Gang of Eight dropped the argument.
“That was before the CBO. The CBO told us we get lots of money,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an interview off the Senate floor.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama has been a chief critic of the bill’s economic impact on American workers. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, also presented his case last week.
“This bill, if it were to pass, the wages of American workers will fall for the next 12 years. They will be lower than inflation,” Sessions said last week.
After the CBO report, Udall and Bennet made the economic case for the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744).
Udall directed his remarks at critics of the bill who say it would depress wages and discourage employers from hiring workers.
He said the proposal would help the agriculture and high-tech industries. Also, he noted it contains a provision that requires employees seeking low-skilled workers to post notices of jobs to natives before hiring foreign-born workers.
“This bill will ensure that Americans get a first pass at jobs before foreign workers are eligible to fill them. That’s an important element, one that Coloradans have told me that they demand,” he said.
But some, like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have argued that the bill would actually create an incentive for employers to hire foreigners over U.S. citizens.
“Anyone granted [legal] status is exempted from ObamaCare, which means that the employers that would be hiring them do not face the tax of $5,000 per employee,” Cruz said Tuesday – a reference to a provision of the massive 1,200 page bill that would bar immigrant workers from receiving ObamaCare benefits. “This bill creates an enormous incentive to hire those here illegally and it does so by creating a statutory penalty for hiring U.S. citizens.”
Like Bennet, Udall suggest that adding more immigrants would boost employment in the long run.
“I would point out to my friends who are skeptical of this effort that immigrants in this country also have an incredible, a phenomenal history of creating jobs,” he said.
The Senate is expected to vote on the full legislation before the July 4 recess.