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Address to Miami Chamber of Commerce

John McCain

(Editor's Note: Prepared remarks delivered on June 4.)

Thank you for this opportunity to share with you a few thoughts about the issue that has occasioned much debate in our country: illegal immigration and the failure of the United States to secure our borders. It is a serious problem that poses many challenges, and how we address it will impact directly the destiny of the great nation we are blessed to call home. Those of us privileged to hold elective office have the responsibility to secure our borders and change the immigration policy that has allowed this intolerable situation to persist: a nation at war, confronting an enemy that means to do us great harm, has failed to control its borders, tolerated for years an immense wave of illegal immigration, and is presently unable to discern from the hundreds of thousands of people who cross our borders illegally each year, who came here to work; who came here for criminal purposes; and who came here to hurt us.

This problem cannot be allowed to continue any longer. Finding an effective, just and practical solution is difficult, but it is our work to do, on our watch. The politics of Washington have encouraged us to leave solutions to the toughest problems for another unluckier generation of leaders. Problems are left unsolved year after year, because we fear the political consequences of seriously addressing them or value their utility as political attacks in our campaigns. Illegal immigration and our porous borders are problems that we have, to our shame, ignored for too long because it was too hard and politically risky to solve. But the problem has grown too acute and dangerous to ignore any longer. To do nothing now would be an unconscionable abrogation of our responsibilities to defend the security, prosperity and values of our country.

A number of us, Republicans and Democrats, and the President, have tried to meet this responsibility. We have proposed a remedy that, while imperfect as all compromises are, is, nevertheless, a serious, comprehensive, and practical attempt to secure our borders, defend the rule of law, help our economy grow, and make it possible for the United States to know who has entered this country illegally, and who among them have done so for purposes more nefarious than making better lives for their families. As the legislation is debated in Congress, many changes will be proposed and some adopted. Many already have been. I welcome any attempt to meet our responsibility to fix our broken borders and immigration system. Our proposal has provoked criticism from some on both the left and right. Compromises usually do. People of good will, who take their responsibilities seriously, argue variously that our ideas are too tough or not tough enough. I do not question the sincerity of their convictions or their purpose in proposing other ways to address the problem. There is one premise most of us agree on: the status quo is unacceptable. Our borders are unsecured, our laws our being violated, and our current immigration laws do not meet the needs of a growing economy. And while we argue over the means to solve the problem, we should respect each other's intentions.

Both proponents and opponents of the legislation agree on another point: the last attempt to address the problem, made over twenty years ago, was a failure. The immigration reform adopted in 1986 simply granted amnesty to the millions of illegal immigrants living in our country, and did virtually nothing to improve border security. It is important that we avoid repeating these mistakes. A country facing an enemy as malevolent as the enemy we face must have effective control of its borders. And we cannot prevent further waves of illegal immigration without drastically improving border security. Those improvements alone will not stop people from coming here illegally, but without them, we cannot stem the tide of illegal border crossings by those who are simply fleeing despair and injustice or those who mean us harm. So we began by authorizing tough and effective measures to secure our borders, which must be operational and visually certified before other provisions to reform our immigration laws take effect.

We will increase the number of border patrol agents up to 20,000. We will complete 370 miles of border fencing, and 200 miles of vehicle barriers, which will not be, as some critics have suggested, all that will be constructed. We will continue until we have protected our border with fencing, vehicle barriers, ground sensors, unmanned aerial systems, cameras, advanced communications systems and the most up to date security technologies available to us. New detention facilities will be constructed to hold those who have crossed our border illegally. We will institute a tough new employment eligibility verification system, tamper proof biometric cards to prove to an employer that foreign workers are in this country legally, and impose substantial fines on employers who hire someone without proper status. We will not admit one temporary worker or grant one undocumented worker a visa until the Secretary of Homeland Security can certify that these tough, new measures are in place.

As imperative as these measures are, they will not alone ensure our control of immigration or enable us to know the identity, whereabouts and purposes of the millions of undocumented workers who are in our country now. To address those problems, we must recognize that as long as the job market in our growing economy offers opportunities to immigrants, they will come here, legally or otherwise, for the same reasons immigrants have always come here: to escape poverty and injustice, and seize opportunities so abundant in our good and blessed country. Moreover, our economy needs them. Ask any orange grower, restaurant manager or hotel owner in Florida. We have proposed a temporary worker program that will discourage illegal immigration by allowing more workers a legal way to come here to fill jobs that are available to them and have not been taken by an American. It is genuinely temporary. It grants each worker a two year visa that can be renewed twice but only after th e worker has returned to his or her country for a year. They will be granted a visa only if they prove a job is waiting for them, and it didn't come at the expense of an American worker.

The most difficult problem is what to do about the twelve million or more undocumented workers who live and work here now. No critic of our bill has offered a serious proposal to round up all these millions, many of whom have children born in this country, and ship them back to their countries of origin. There is simply no practical way to do that, and most Americans understand that. We have proposed a way to encourage them to come out from the underground economy, submit to a criminal background check, pay fines, back taxes and prove they are gainfully employed in exchange for a visa that would allow them to continue working here. Getting these people to declare themselves and prove they have come here for a job, pose no security threat and have no criminal record beyond entering the country illegally will enable our security and law enforcement officials to concentrate their resources on those who have come here to threaten our way of life rather than embrace it. DHS Secretary Chertoff, who helped negotiate this legislation, has warned that two million people in this country illegally have committed serious crimes. If some of them attempt to legalize their status, we will apprehend them. If they don't, we can concentrate our efforts on locating them and not rounding up lettuce pickers, hotel maids, and babysitters. Most importantly, we can devote all the resources necessary to finding terrorists who have broken our immigration laws, like three of the terrorists who intended to attack our soldiers at Ft. Dix.

Those undocumented workers who declare themselves, pass criminal background checks, prove their employment, pay fines, taxes, learn English and study American civics may be offered eventually, and I stress eventually, a path to citizenship. Critics of the bill attack this as amnesty and a special path to citizenship that is denied to lawful immigrants. Both charges are false. Amnesty is what we gave in 1986, and it didn't work. It was unconditional forgiveness for breaking our laws. Illegal immigrants broke our laws and they should pay a penalty for doing so. We impose fines, fees and other requirements as punishment. And if the path to citizenship we offer them is 'special,' it is because it is harder, longer and more expensive than the path offered to those immigrants who come here legally. Those undocumented workers who attain legal status are not automatically provided a green card and citizenship. The process could take as long as thirteen years, and will cost them thousands of dollars, require them to learn English and understand our laws and culture, return to their country and get in the back of the line - not the front, not the middle, but the back of the line for a green card. That is a fair, practical and humane way of dealing with the problem of twelve million undocumented workers. And if someone objects to it, especially if they are a candidate for President, they should have the responsibility and courage to propose another way.

The situation as it currently exists is de facto amnesty. These people are here in numbers too large, diffuse and concealed to round up and deport, which even critics concede is impractical. They will stay here. They will work. And we won't have any idea how many of them are simply here to earn a living and how many are here planning an attack. It is a hard problem, and I understand that. But the choice is between doing something, imperfect but effective and achievable, and doing nothing. I would hope that any candidate for President would not suggest doing nothing. And I would hope they wouldn't play politics for their own interests if the cost of their ambition was to make this problem even harder to solve. To want the office so badly that you would intentionally make our country's problems worse might prove you can read a poll or take a cheap shot, but it hardly demonstrates presidential leadership. Americans are problem solvers, and they want their leaders to be problem solvers, and to show the same common sense, civic-mindedness, sense of justice and humanity that they do. We have a chance now to secure our borders and place effective controls on immigration that benefit all of us, and enhance our ability to apprehend terrorists before they strike us. It is a common sense, conservative approach to the problem. Is any office worth sacrificing the progress we can make now to solve this crisis? I want to be President to do the hard but necessary things: to protect our country and defeat its enemies; to solve our country's biggest problems on our watch and not leave them to a more responsible, braver, and wiser generation of leaders. I make one pledge to you that I will keep no matter what. I will never conduct my campaign in such a way that it makes our country's most difficult challenges harder to solve. I hope you will hold all candidates to that same standard. Pandering for votes on this issue, while offering no solution to the pr oblem, amounts to doing nothing. And doing nothing is silent amnesty.

I know that except for a very few people on the fringes of our society, we all value legal immigration. And though the waves of people who have come here over the centuries have posed some challenges to our society, immigration has always proved in the end to be a great and valued part of the American story. Irish, Italians, Poles, Cubans, Japanese, Mexicans and people from every country in every corner of the world have come here, assimilated, and given America renewed vigor and opportunities. Most arrived destitute, worked at any job that would put a little food on the table, and then they rose, or their children rose to succeed in every profession. And they made this country great. No other country in the world has so successfully absorbed immigrants and made them an asset and not a problem. Even in many developed democracies today, immigrants are left in a segregated, unassimilated underclass and pose serious and threatening challenges to the prosperity and stab ility of those countries. Here, people arrive from everywhere, and are given the opportunity to become citizens of the greatest nation on earth, a nation that is based not on tribal identity or ethnicity but on an idea, the boldest, bravest, truest political idea ever conceived by man: that all people are free, and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. As long as you embrace and defend that ideal, you are an American.

How proud that makes me of my country. How proud that must make you. Florida is a living testament to the benefits of immigration, a great and prosperous state built in large part by immigrants who came here to escape tyranny and despair, live the American Dream, contribute to our greatness and defend our ideals. I am honored today by the presence of Miami's police chief, John Timoney, who arrived in this country from Ireland at the age of thirteen, and whose contributions to our country have earned our respect and gratitude. Florida has been well led by its most recent governors, my friends, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, both of whom have fought for immigration reform that protects our security, laws, economy, and values. I want to particularly salute former Governor Bush, for the recent column he wrote with the former chairman of my party, Ken Melhman, which made an eloquent and persuasive case for our proposal.

As a country deeply rooted in a tradition of religious faith, we are taught to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the trackless deserts of Arizona, people who broke our laws, not to harm us but to possess for themselves the ideals and opportunities cherished here, are dying, led into the wilderness by unscrupulous smugglers of human cargo, and left to perish in an agonizing death. Allow me to quote from a newspaper article that put faces on a few of these forgotten people who died in the desert of my state in one year.

'Maria Hernandez Perez was No. 93. She was almost 2. She had thick brown hair and eyes the color of chocolate. '

'Kelia Velazquez-Gonzales, 16, carried a Bible in her backpack. She was No. 109'

'John Doe, No. 143, died with a rosary encircling his neck. His eyes were wide open.'

We can't let immigrants break our laws with impunity. We can't leave our borders so undefended that people who come here to hurt us can enter it as easily as someone following a dream of living in a great country. But these people are also God's children, who wanted simply to be Americans, and we cannot forget the humanity God commands of us as we seek a remedy to this problem. Over 200 illegal immigrants died in Arizona last year. We have a chance this year to prevent such terrible tragedies from occurring in the numbers they have occurred in the past. Let's do it. For the sake of security, justice, prosperity and humanity, let us do it.

The United States of America, the greatest experiment in human history - powerful, prosperous, industrious, inventive, striving, madly in love with liberty, hopeful, generous and good - has been the ideal of my life. I have always loved her, but it wasn't until I lost America for a time that I realized how much I love her.

I loved what I missed most from my life at home: my family and friends; the sights and sounds of my country; sports; music, information; the endless variety of American life; our hustle and purposefulness: our fervid independence; our hopefulness; and our confidence that we could make of our industry and talents a better life than we had begun, a better country than we had inherited.

missed all of it, very much, but I still carried her ideals in the habits of my heart. And because they were all I possessed of my country, I cherished them all the more. I cherished the honor of being a citizen of a country that was the last, best hope of mankind, the great refuge of those who sought escape from despair and tyranny on crowded, miserable steamers into New York harbor, on small rafts across the Florida Straits, and on foot across the punishing deserts of the southwest. I know why people want to come here. I once thought I would rather die than be denied my country for one more day.

I want us to seize this opportunity to secure our borders, and change our immigration laws to meet the demands of our security, economy and values. I don't want to use the issue to make it easier for me to be President. I'm not running to do the easy things. So, I defend with no reservation our proposal to offer the people who harvest our crops, tend our gardens, work in our restaurants, care for our children and clean our homes a chance to be legal citizens of this country. They will have to earn it. They must come out from the shadows, pay their penalties, fees and taxes, stay employed, obey our laws, learn our language and history, and go to the back of the line and wait years for the privilege of being an American.

Riayan Tejeda immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic. He came with two dreams, he said, to become an American citizen and to serve in the United States Marine Corps. He willingly accepted the obligations of American citizenship before he possessed all the rights of an American. Staff Sergeant Tejada, from Washington Heights, New York by way of the Dominican Republic, the father of two young daughters, died in an ambush in Baghdad on April 11, 2003. He had never fulfilled his first dream to become a naturalized American citizen. But he loved his country so much he gave his life to defend her. Right now, at this very moment, there are fighting for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers who are not yet American citizens, or whose parents are not, but who have dreamed the dream, and have risked everything for it. They make me proud to share this country with them. They are my countrymen, and I am theirs.

They came to grasp the lowest rung of the ladder of opportunity, and they intend to rise. Let them rise. Let them rise. We will be the better for it. Our America -blessed, bountiful, and beautiful - is the land of hope and opportunity, the land of the immigrant's dream. Long may she remain so.

John McCain is a U.S. Senator from Arizona. He is currently the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and serves on the Armed Services, and Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committees.

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