Amid a stalled momentum in the House of Representatives, Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake defended their proposed immigration legislation during a town hall event held at the Mesa Arts Center on Aug. 27.
Both senators are members of the senate’s “Gang of Eight” — a group of four Republican and four Democrats who crafted a bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, to reform the country’s immigration system. The crux of the bill passed through the senate in June is an increase in border security and a path toward citizenship for people in the country illegally.
“Everyone recognizes the status quo is not acceptable,” Flake said.
The bill passed the senate with 68 votes two months ago, but the House of Representatives has not acted on it, and House Speaker Rep. John Boehner said he will not bring it to the floor for a vote without broad support from the body’s GOP members.
Tuesday's event — dubbed “A Conversation on Immigration” and organized by the Arizona Republic, azcentral.com, 12 News and USA Today — provided the senators a venue to defend a bill they said will secure border states like Arizona while providing a means toward citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
McCain said the key to improving border control is the implementation of technological innovations, the most notable being what he called the VADER, or Vehicle Dismount and Exploitation, Radar. According to manufacturer Northrop Grumman’s website, the device, which came into use during the Iraq War, detects people on the ground and relays their location to enforcement agents in real time.
Another component of the bill Flake cited is an increase in border fencing covering approximately 700 miles. Not every part of the border would receive additional fencing — Flake said some parts of the Arizona border, for example, might receive a second fence, while mountainous areas that act as a natural deterrent would not have a fence built around it. But he said the fencing component has to be in place before any of the amnesty provisions come into effect.
Flake and McCain said the end result of the proposed legislation is to increase the security to a minimum of 90-percent effectiveness, and McCain said an additional $2 billion would go to support those efforts if the target percentage is not reached in two years.
“The border is not secure, but it’s much more secure than it has been,” he said.
If approved, the bill would allow an estimated 11 million people a path to citizenship as long as they have been in the country since Dec. 31, 2011, have no felony convictions and meet other qualifications. That portion of the bill has received the most flak from some Republicans and objections from people like the protestors who stood outside the Mesa Arts Center and held signs in opposition to the provision. One woman who addressed the senators during the event opposed the amnesty portion after losing a loved one to border violence near a ranch three years ago.
Flake and McCain, however, said the process to gain citizenship isn’t necessarily amnesty, as it’s a long and arduous process that does penalize people who are not legal citizens through fines and fees.
“This is a 10-year path to a green card; this is thousands of dollars that need to be paid,” McCain said.
Of those 11 million undocumented residents, Flake said approximately 40 percent first entered the country legally on student or work visas but overstayed the duration of their proscribed visitation, which he said is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“We know when they come. Right now, we don’t know when they leave, and that’s a terrible system for national security,” he said.
McCain and Flake also touted the potential benefits of the senate’s bill beyond border control, highlighted by expected positive effects on the economy. According to the Congressional Budget Office, which McCain praised along with the Government Accountability Office for their scruples, the bill would decrease the federal deficit by a net total of $175 billion between 2014 and 2023, depending on how Congress appropriates funding.
“It would help our budget deficit significantly,” Flake said.
McCain said adding more workers to the employment pool would also provide a boost to Social Security funding that has dropped significantly over the last 50 years.
Flake and McCain said another one of the bill’s positives is the funding, which they said is not tied to congressional appropriations.
“We don’t have to depend on year-to-year appropriations from Congress; that was one of the failings of 1986,” McCain said, referencing the Immigration Reform and Control Act from that year.
A side bonus for Republicans like Flake and McCain is a possible increase in support from Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly sided with Democrats in the last election.
Flake, however, emphasized creating a good policy will lead to good political fortunes, and McCain added the bill’s purpose should not be tied to politics.
“I don’t want this to be an issue that’s political,” McCain said. “But I do make the argument when asked that we do know the dispiriting in Hispanic voters in the Republican Party. … I don’t think this would add one Hispanic voter to the Republican Party.”
McCain admitted the bill, like all legislation, is imperfect. Potential fraud issues with the E-Verify system used to check employment status for workers could arise, and McCain was stumped by a question regarding whether employers might use illegal workers to duck regulations tied to the Affordable Care Act.
But McCain emphasized his support for the bill through his own story about visiting a military base in the Middle East and seeing the boots of deceased soldiers who ended up receiving their citizenship posthumously. And there are, he said, “11 million people living in the shadows,” and the immigration reform bill can help people like the four soldiers who died before they could become full-fledged citizens and others who continue to work hard to support themselves and their families.
“All of us have a chance for redemption, and that’s what it’s all about,” McCain said.
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