Although we often refer to each other as “brothers from another mother” who have trouble agreeing on the time of day, we do occasionally find an issue that brings us together. Last year we agreed that marriage should be equal for everyone and that Gov. Paul LePage should not have used the word “Gestapo” in describing the Internal Revenue Services. More recently we agreed that the Legislature should not have taken away the public’s right to know who owns a concealed weapon permit and that Democrats should have allowed the governor to address the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.
Today, we agree on another issue: immigration reform. This is a problem too big to ignore. That’s why we’re encouraged by the so-called “Gang of 8” legislation moving through Congress. And we are equally encouraged that leaders as diverse in opinion as the two of us, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., can put aside their differences and work toward a common solution.
Our current immigration situation would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. More than 11 million undocumented immigrants hide in the shadows of our nation. Most of these immigrants are hard-working people with strong family values that simply want a better life for themselves and their children. We cannot continue to relegate them to a separate, underground society within our own borders. We must work together to find a way to integrate them into our society and let them have an openly positive impact on our nation, the way immigrants in America have for more than 200 years.
In Maine and across America, so many of our businesses rely on seasonal and migrant labor, and they need to be able to fill these positions with legal, documented workers. Our tech companies have made it clear that the availability of highly skilled workers is critical to their continued success. They need to hire the best and the brightest minds available, and when these students come to be trained at our universities, we need them to keep their expertise here, instead of leaving and benefiting the economies of other countries.
The real strength of the bill is that it goes to the heart of the immigration debate. It gives immigrants currently relegated to the shadows the ability to apply for provisional status. This status can only be attained once an immigrant passes a background check, pays a fine and pays any back taxes owed. Their next steps toward citizenship can only continue if they show they are paying taxes, following the law and earning a sufficient income to support themselves and their families.
The bill also helps businesses by nearly tripling the number of immigrants who can gain status to work temporarily in vacant high-skilled jobs, as long as companies can prove the positions cannot be filled by equally skilled American workers. It also allows agricultural workers a faster path to legal status, ensuring our farmers can access the workforce they need to continue to thrive.
These steps toward a sane path to citizenship do not move forward until we first address a critical issue: border security. This bill requires security benchmarks to be met prior to beginning the provisional status program. It allocates $3 billion to enhance security on our southern border and another $1.5 billion toward the construction of double-layer fencing in key problem areas of our southern border. And it makes mandatory the e-verify system to ensure our employers are hiring only legal, documented workers.
The result of all this hard work and bipartisanship is that we have a bill that may now pass the Senate with close to 70 votes. But the next steps are crucial. We both have amendments we would love to see included (Ethan with gay immigrants receiving the same treatment as straight immigrants. Phil with wanting stronger penalties on those currently violating the rules of their visa), but we understand that no amendment should pass if it means the overall bill will lose support or it will kill its chances in the House.
If members of both parties can stand together to make this legislation work, and if the rancor and partisanship that has crippled Washington for so many years can be kept at bay, this immigration reform bill has the potential to be groundbreaking in rebuilding America’s strength as a nation of immigrants and finally manage the flow of people coming to participate in the American dream.
We support Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, in their willingness to engage on this critical issue, and we urge them to continue their efforts to make immigration reform a success.