June 13, 2013

ON SENATE FLOOR, HIRONO CALLS ON COLLEAGUES TO FIX PARTS OF IMMIGRATION BILL THAT INADVERTENTLY DISCRIMINATE AGAINST WOMEN IMMIGRANTS, UNFAIRLY PENALIZE IMMIGRANT TAXPAYERS

As Written, Immigration Bill Would Cement Discriminatory Treatment of Women Abroad Into Our Immigration Laws; Bill Also Forces Immigrant Taxpayers To Pay For Safety Net Programs But Blocks Them From Utilizing These Same Programs For 13 Years

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Mazie K. Hirono today took to the Senate floor to highlight two major flaws in the immigration reform bill currently being debated in the Senate. In her remarks, Hirono pointed out how the new merit-based immigration system that gives preference to potential immigrants with high level education and technical expertise would heavily disadvantage women, since women across the globe do not have the same educational and career opportunities as men.

“Women in too many other countries do not have the same educational or career advancement opportunities available to men in those countries,” Hirono said. “In practice, the bill’s new point system takes that discriminatory treatment abroad and cements it into our immigration laws, making it harder for women to come to our country than for men.”

She also criticized how the bill requires immigrant taxpayers to pay the same taxes as everyone else but blocks these taxpayers from utilizing safety net programs for at least 13 years.

“Imagine that you buy homeowner’s insurance, but the policy won’t cover your house if it catches fire until 13 years after you start paying premiums. That is obviously not fair. But that is exactly the situation in which we are putting immigrants who are on the pathway to citizenship,” Hirono said.

Senator Hirono called on her colleagues to fix these parts of the bill and said she is working with her colleagues on amendments that would do just that.

Hirono’s full remarks as prepared read below:


I believe hope and fairness lie at the core of what makes our country great. Fifty years ago, President Kennedy called on the country to embrace civil rights legislation that would end the unfair treatment of millions of people as second-class citizens. Congress responded, and the country is better for it. This week, we in the senate are debating comprehensive immigration reform legislation that gives hope to the millions of undocumented people who live in this country that they will be able to emerge from the shadows and live full lives. It is our time to act. We should pass this important legislation.

I thank the Gang of Eight, and their staff, for their hard work negotiating the bill and getting it through committee and onto the floor. They have set an example of bipartisanship on a tough issue that is all too rare these days.

I also thank Senator Leahy, and his staff, for his able leadership during the markup. It was a remarkably open and fair process, full of principled debate. That’s how the senate should work.

Their hard work, and that of others, has produced the bill that is before us.

Many senators have already spoken about what is in the bill: the billions of dollars for border security, the tough employment eligibility verification requirements, the pro-tourism policies, and the path to citizenship.

Rather than cover that ground again, I want to talk about two problems with the bill that I hope can be fixed: first, the system designed for future immigration is unfair to women; and second, the pathway to citizenship is unfair to immigrant taxpayers.

The new merit-based point system for allocating visas to future immigrants is the first problem. Simply put, the point system inadvertently makes it harder for women than for men to come to this country.

The new point system is based on an attractive economic idea, but unfortunately one that clearly disadvantages women. The idea is if we want a stronger economy, then we should give immigration preferences to people who hold advanced degrees or work in high-skill jobs.

This idea ignores the discrimination women endure in other countries. Women in too many other countries do not have the same educational or career advancement opportunities available to men in those countries.

In practice, the bill’s new point system takes that discriminatory treatment abroad and cements it into our immigration laws, making it harder for women to come to our country than for men.

While unintentional in this case, the idea that we want to attract the most educated and skilled people, but they just happen to be mostly men, is the same argument used for generations to protect gender discrimination policies in the workplace. We all want a stronger economy, but we should not sacrifice the hard-won victories of the women’s equality movement to get it.

By contrast, the current family immigration system treats men and women equally. The current system is based on keeping families together. That system reflects our shared values about the social importance of family. My family and millions of others also know the family system makes good economic sense.

Anyone, whether an immigrant or a natural born citizen, has a better chance of being successful if they are surrounded by a strong family that can pool its resources to help start a business or help one another during rough times. In able to get better jobs and contribute even more to the funding of federal programs. He wrote that after the 1986 immigration law was enacted, “their incomes rose by an average 15 percent just by gaining legal status. Those immigrants today are making much more than they did then and, as a result, paying more in taxes.”

My point is immigrant taxpayers contribute to the funding of not only Medicare and Social Security, but of all federal programs. No one disputes it should be this way. Immigrants on the pathway must pay taxes just like everyone else. The strict tax requirements in the bill are the right policy.

What is wrong are the policies in the bill that prohibit immigrant taxpayers who are on the pathway from being able to use federal safety net programs for at least 13 years. Their taxes pay for these programs but they can’t use these programs. That is profoundly unfair.

Imagine if you buy homeowner’s insurance, but the policy won’t cover your house if it catches fire until 13 years after you start paying premiums. That is obviously not fair. But that is exactly the situation in which we are putting immigrants who are on the pathway to citizenship.

Yesterday, the senior senator from Utah spoke on the floor about several amendments he filed to further restrict immigrant taxpayers’ access to the programs their tax dollars pay for. He said, “I don’t want to punish these immigrants. I simply want to make sure that they are treated no better or no worse than U.S. citizens and resident aliens with respect to federal benefits and taxes.”

I have great respect for the senior senator from Utah. I agree with him that these immigrants should be treated no worse than U.S. citizens and resident aliens. But they are being treated worse because of the restrictions in the bill.

Under current law, immigrant taxpayers who are resident aliens can’t use the federal safety net programs they pay into for five years. Their taxes are paid into the system for five years, and but they get no help during that time if their kids get sick or if they lose their job. That is already unfair. But the bill treats immigrants in provisional status even worse. They have to pay taxes for 13 years before they can use the programs they are paying for.

The 13-year long pathway to citizenship will be hard enough. Lose your job and you risk losing your legal status and being deported. Work hard to save up money not just for your kids school supplies, but to pay the penalties in the bill. The restrictions on federal safety net programs make the pathway even more treacherous.

We are saying to these immigrants, pay your taxes but if your kids get sick don’t come to us for help. We are saying pay your taxes but if you have to work part time because of a recession, don’t come to us if you need some help putting food on the table. We are saying pay your taxes, but we’re not going to help you. That is just not fair.

I want to be clear: I am talking only about immigrants who will be lawfully present. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for these programs at all, and no one is proposing to change that.

But the pathway provides a way for certain people to earn lawful status. Let’s treat lawfully present taxpayers fairly. Let’s do as the senator from Utah suggests and at the very least make sure they are treated no worse than U.S. citizens and resident aliens.

Finally, not only are the prohibitions in the bill unfair to immigrant taxpayers, they are also bad economics.

Both Republican and Democratic senators say they want immigrants to be successful, start businesses and continue contributing to the economy. We all do.

But few people would use their life savings to start a business if they think their children will go hungry or go without healthcare if the business fails. The safety net programs exist so people can take risks to improve their economic circumstances.

Immigrants come to this country to work. They don’t come to get handouts. They come here to work. Two papers from the Cato institute show that immigrants are more likely to be working or looking for work than natural born citizens. And immigrants are less likely to use federal safety net programs. The title of one Cato article sums it up nicely: “Evidence Shows Immigrants Come to Work, Not to Collect Welfare.” I ask unanimous consent that these two papers be printed in the record following my remarks.

Both political parties should be able to support the idea that taxpayers who are lawfully present, working, and paying taxes should be able to use the programs their tax dollars pay for. That is only fair. I will file an amendment that says precisely that.

In closing, during the debate on immigration reform, I hope we remember who undocumented immigrants are. Like other immigrants, they had the courage and aspiration to leave their hometowns to look for work elsewhere, in order to give their kids better lives than they could dream for themselves.

The undocumented should pay penalties for the laws they broke by coming here, but we should remember that the founding fathers were willing to break up an empire to achieve their dreams.

We are a nation of immigrants. Let’s treat immigrants how we would have wanted our immigrant ancestors to be treated: with dignity and fairness.

I yield the floor.