Mr. President, I quote: “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.”
That is the language of the Declaration of Independence.
One of the grievances against King George III, in the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, was limitations on immigration: “Endeavoring to prevent the population of these States.” That was an original formulation, an original idea at the heart of the United States.
Looked at in the context of our history, this debate we are having this week is somewhat disappointing but not surprising. It is serious in its particulars, but it is amazing in its totality.
Here we have a roomful of descendants of immigrants arguing about the conditions of immigration. Sure, most of our ancestors in this room entered the country legally, but that was because there were virtually no laws about immigration for the majority of our history. For most of our history, if a person could pay the cost, a person could enter the country. That is the fundamental premise of America.
What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of people with courage, people with imagination, people with initiative, people with perseverance?
Before coming to this body, I taught at Bowdoin College in Maine a course on leaders and leadership and we attempted to define the qualities of leadership. At the end of the course each year we took an analysis of what we had seen, and people with courage, imagination, initiative, and perseverance are leaders. Those are the people we want in this country. That is what it takes to come here. That is what it has taken to come here throughout our history.
And why are they coming? They are coming for opportunity. They are coming for freedom. They are coming for a better life for their children, the same reason our ancestors came here. Isn't this what we all want--opportunity, freedom, and a better life for our kids?
Does this discussion affect the State of Maine? Well, yes, it does. We have migrants and immigrants picking our crops in northern Maine, blueberries and potatoes and broccoli. We have a vibrant refugee and asylum-seeking community in Portland, ME, and in Lewiston. Many of those from Africa come here with very different cultures. We have 52 languages spoken in the Portland public schools. Yes, we have strains and difficulties adjusting one culture to another. But we are making it work and it is making our State richer spiritually, culturally, intellectually, and, yes, financially. It is working.
But isn't this discussion all about amnesty? I keep hearing about amnesty. The mail I get says, “Don't let them get amnesty.” No, it is not about amnesty. In my book, amnesty is a free pass. Amnesty is a “get-out-of-jail-free'' card; it is a forgiveness. If a person is convicted of what we call in our State OUI--other places call it DWI--if a person is convicted of driving under the influence, that person pays a fine, loses their license, and sometimes they spend a few days in jail and they are under a suspension or a probationary period for several months or perhaps even several years. But when it is all over--when a person has paid their fine and had their suspension--they get their license back and they move on with their life and go from there. Nobody calls that amnesty when a person gets their license back at the end of that period after they have paid their debt to society.
I would argue that a fine, which is contained in this bill, and 13 years of what constitutes probation is not amnesty. It is not amnesty in anybody's book. People who are talking about calling it amnesty--that is not accurate.
Why is this debate so important? Why is this issue so important? Why is this bill so important? In my view, immigration is the mainspring of America. It is our secret sauce. It is what has made us who we are. No other country in the history of the world has been built the way this country was built. Except for the African Americans who were brought here against their will and the Native Americans who were here when the Europeans arrived, everybody else here came by virtue of immigration, and that immigration is, I believe, what has separated us from the rest of the world. It is the constant flow of new energy, initiative, and ideas, different cultures, different religions, different backgrounds, and different creative energies that have made this country what it is today. If we unduly limit it or cut it off, we are sunk.
We are living in a negative demographic time bomb. Last year, I believe for the first time in American history, we had more deaths than births of White Americans. One doesn't have to be a mathematician to know if that continues, we will shrink and shrivel as a society. We need immigration to add to our population, to add to the ideas and creativity.
What would we lose if we unduly limited immigration in this country? Well, I am standing in the shoes of Olympia Snowe, the daughter of Greek immigrants. Before Olympia Snowe, the holder of this office was George Mitchell, the son of immigrants. Before George Mitchell it was Ed Muskie, one of the great legislators of the 20th century in America and the son of an immigrant Polish tailor. We have among our number now a brilliant young Senator from Texas who himself is the son of an immigrant.
Immigrants are always going to be different and a little scary, and that has been true throughout American history. We have had waves of immigrations: Italians, Germans, Scottish people, Chinese, Irish. It is hard for us to believe, but a lot of the same sort of uneasiness about new immigrants was applied to those groups. In New York in the 1800s, if a person went to apply for a job there might be a sign in the window of the store that said “employees needed, jobs available,” and then in parentheses it might say in big letters, “NINA”--N-I-N-A. NINA stood for “No Irish Need Apply.” So uneasiness and fear and, yes, some prejudice against immigrants has been a part of our history. But in the end, those people are the very people who have built this country, literally, and who have made this country what it is.
It is who we are.
There is also talk I have heard about wages and how all of these new people are going to depress wages. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I had a meeting on my schedule in Maine with a union group and all it said was ‘union group to discuss immigration.’ I thought, these folks are going to be worried about wages and they are going to tell me this is a bad idea. Just the opposite. What they said was, “We support the bill, Senator. We want immigration reform because now we have millions of people in this country who are in the shadows who don't have the benefits of labor protections and that is what is drawing wages down.” That is what is providing a downward motion on wages and benefits. When an employer knows he or she has that kind of leverage over an employee--if a person doesn't take the low salary or sometimes no salary at all--they may say, I am going to report you; you will be gone and deported, and that is an inherently uneven and unfair playing field.
That is why I believe, and I think the CBO report has confirmed, that fixing this problem--putting the people who are here on a pathway to earn citizenship--will actually be a gigantic stimulus to our country.
So what we are doing here is very important. Yes, I know, we need controls, we need border controls. We need to control terrorism and criminals coming into our country. And, yes, I know we shouldn't reward breaking the law. But 13 years of probation and a fine is not rewarding law-breaking. Again, we have to ask, why did these people break the law? They broke the law for the same reason our ancestors came here, and the only reason they didn't break the law was there was no law to break at that time. But they came here for opportunity and for a better life for their children.
I have quoted Mark Twain before on this floor and I will probably do so repeatedly because he captures so many thoughts so succinctly. In this case, what he said was: “History doesn't always repeat itself, but it usually rhymes.”
This discussion we are having here today is nothing new in American history. It has arisen time after time. It arose in the 1840s and 1850s when indeed a whole political party came up that was designed to keep people out. It was called the Know-Nothing Party. The reason it was called that was because when people asked the members of the party what they stood for, the members of the party would say they didn't know anything about that because they didn't want to talk about it. But they were antiforeigner and anti-Catholic and it was designed to lock in the ethnic and cultural society as it stood in 1850.
Abraham Lincoln was asked, when he was a member of the Illinois legislature--I wish he had been a member of the Maine legislature but I have to concede him to Illinois--how he felt about the Know-Nothings and whether he in fact was a Know-Nothing. Here is what he said:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading other classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.’ With the Know-Nothings in charge it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’”
He ended pretty toughly. He said:
“When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for example, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
I am not suggesting hypocrisy on the part of the people who are debating this bill, but I do think this is not a new debate and we can't fear new people coming into our country.
I believe this bill represents a fair-minded resolution of the current conflict over immigration: control of the border to stem the tide of illegal immigration; penalties applied to those who broke the law; but an opportunity to earn citizenship after paying the penalty and a lengthy period of what amounts to probation.
I don't think this debate is about fences and fines and learning English. It is about America itself: confusing, chaotic, creative, at times unsettling, but always erring on the side of freedom and opportunity.
We have young people coming to this country who want and will achieve an education and then we send them home. In my view, we should staple a green card to every diploma of every foreign student the moment they walk through that graduation line so they can bring their ideas and creativity to our society.
The constant infusion of new blood, new people, and new ideas isn't a threat, it is who we are and it is what made us what we are -- again, in the words of Abraham Lincoln – “the last, best hope of Earth.”
I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.