Following is an edited statement prepared by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as debate began in the U.S. Senate on historic immigration reform legislation.
On Monday, the Senate voted to adopt an amendment offered by Sen. Corker and Sen. Hoeven relating to border security. While I have misgivings about the policy contained in that amendment, I commend these senators for engaging on this legislation and taking the steps they feel are necessary to gain broader support for the underlying bill. We are now one step closer to a Senate vote on comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
Today I want to take a few moments to reflect on why this legislation is so important, and to remind the Senate that as we consider the bill, we should remember that at its core it is about people. It is about families seeking the promise of America. It is about children whose parents want what any parent wants for their child — the opportunity to succeed, to prosper, to live in a free and open and welcoming society. To me, this bill is less about numbers and metrics, or border fences and technology, than it is about human beings and the natural desire we all have to better ourselves, our families, and to give our children the lives we wish for them.
The measures in this legislation will give those affected by it the freedom to get on the path to becoming Americans. Our history of immigration is one that honors our free and open society and which has strengthened it. Immigration has in part been the story of enlarging a society made up of individuals who, no matter their vast differences, all believe in the promise of American democracy and the values given to us in our Constitution. When we welcome those who yearn for these values, we strengthen and renew them.
Of course we are a nation of immigrants. Past immigration has helped shape this country and to deepen its economic and cultural vibrancy, touching every state and every community. After the Revolutionary War and into the early 1880s, for example, Vermont had been the slowest-growing state in the Union. Old growth forests had been stripped and farms had been worn out. Immigrants helped reclaim forsaken farms and to build and operate budding new factories in new centers of industry across the Green Mountain State.
The United States has been made stronger by the diverse cultural background that has been woven into our national fabric. This Vermonter is the grandson of immigrants to Vermont from Ireland and Italy, and our heritage is one of which my family and I are fiercely proud.
To appreciate the values inherent in our immigration policy, I need only to look at the experiences of my own family, and the family of my wife, Marcelle. Marcelle’s mother and father, Louis Philippe Pomerleau and Cecile Bouchard Pomerleau, emigrated to the United States from Quebec, Canada. Marcelle is a first-generation American born in Newport, Vt., and of course, to me, is the greatest contribution her mother and father made to Vermont and America.
Marcelle’s mother and father contributed much to Vermont and to America in business and music and enriched their own community. Members of her family went on to establish successful businesses and become leaders in their communities and have given greatly to Vermont. And Marcelle grew up to serve the communities in which she lived as a registered nurse, caring for others in Burlington, Vt., Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va.
Like many young immigrants in our country, Marcelle grew up in a bilingual household, knowing two different cultures. And that is America for so many — where young people grow up in families where multiple languages are spoken, where traditions from multiple cultures are observed. This enriches America.
My maternal grandparents came to this country from Italy. My grandfather, like many others who came to Vermont from Italy, was a granite carver and opened a granite business in central Vermont. The hard work and determination of my maternal grandparents — who did not speak English when they arrived — to settle in this country laid the foundation for my mother and for our family. My paternal great-grandparents came from Ireland, and my great-grandfather worked in a stone quarry as well. They worked hard, had a family, and I grew up the son of printers in Montpelier, our state capital.
Nearly every American family has a story like mine and Marcelle’s. We are more alike than we are different from today’s immigrants and first-generation Americans. The majority of new immigrants will continue this proud tradition of hard work, the drive toward prosperity, and embracing the values that make America great. They will someday tell their children and grandchildren of their own immigrant histories. The bill we consider will continue this cycle of growth and renewal and will improve on many aspects of our immigration system.
The bill before us contains measures that are important to many Vermonters. I added a provision that takes an important step toward restoring privacy rights to millions of people who live near the northern border by injecting some oversight into the decision-making process for operating federal checkpoints and entering private land without a warrant far from the border.
The bill contains significant measures to assist dairy farmers and other Vermont growers who have long relied on foreign workers and who will need them in the future. It contains a youth jobs program proposed by Sen. Sanders to help young people gain employment. It contains a measure I proposed to make sure that no Canadian citizen traveling to Vermont to see a family member will be charged a fee for crossing our shared border.
It contains an improvement to the visas used by nonprofit arts organizations like the Vermont Symphony Orchestra who invite talented foreign artists to perform in America. It contains measures to improve the lives and futures of refugees and asylum seekers who call Vermont home. It contains improvements to the H-2B program to help small businesses. And it contains a measure to ensure that the job-creating EB-5 program will be made permanent so that the state of Vermont can continue the great work that is being done with it to improve Vermont communities. This is a bill that will help Vermont families and businesses alike.
I discuss this legislation in the context of my personal history today to take a moment to remind all of us that immigration is about more than border security. It is about more than politics. It is about the lives and hopes and dreams of human beings. It is about those who will go on to do great things in America. It is about American communities that benefit from immigration. That has been our history, and it should be our future. As I have said before, the legislation before us will help write the next great chapter in America’s history of immigration.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is manager of the Senate floor debate on immigration reform.
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