Senators compete over worker protections in immigration bill

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

The 18 senators redrafting the Senate immigration bill tried to outbid each other Tuesday in claiming to protect American workers — including executives — against increased competition.

The bill already provides an array of protections to Americans workers, said Democratic Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, one of the eight co-authors of the 867-page bill.

The bill demonstrates “our commitment as a nation of immigrants” and also boosts border protection, he said. “The third element, I think for everyone involved, is if there are jobs that are available, they will be offered first to Americans,” he said.

Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the leading senator in the “Gang of Eight,” voted against several GOP measures that would have increased federal oversight of hiring decisions, but said the bill protects American workers.

“What we tried to do in our proposal is to find a balance” of economy-boosting benefits and worker protections, he said. “For low-skilled labor, we were tougher” in establishing protections.

Republican Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions pushed for a measure that would have capped immigration at 1.2 million people per year. In concert with current law, the pending bill would provide work permits to 30 million people over the next ten years.

“Won’t that [inflow of] labor pull down wages, won’t that make it harder for Americans to get jobs, for their children to get jobs, for their grandchildren to get jobs?” asked Sessions.

“We are really not considering sufficiently what the right amount of immigration is for America,” he said.

But the measure was defeated 1 to 17, with Sessions’ GOP allies voting against his cap.

Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham voted against Sessions’ measure, saying the country needs more workers to offset the accelerating retirement of the Baby Boom generation.

“A very good case can be made” that wages are reduced by immigrants, said Graham, who is part of the Gang of Eight. “I think wages have been suppressed up to a point, but … it is better that we bring people into our country than have the businesses close or leave” because of worker-shortages, he said.

Democratic Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, however, persuaded his fellow senators on the Judiciary Committee to amend the bill so that mid-level executives can complain when their jobs are outsourced.

In local meet-and-greets with constituents, Whitehouse said, he’s met “fairly senior middle management people who get let go and then get replaced by folks who are from overseas, who are living in hotels, and who are brought into the office in buses.”

“They need a place to complain so we have a way to go after that kind of misbehavior,” he told The Daily Caller after the May 14 markup session.

Schumer said the bill would protect workers by reducing competition from illegal immigrants. “The idea that people who are here illegally don’t depress wages more than people who are here legally, defies my belief,” he said.

The most contentious debate was provoked by an amendment from Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley that would require some companies to declare they had tried to hire Americans before they hired guest workers.

His amendment was rejected by the committee after Schumer said it threatened a core political compromise in the bill, which would provide work permits to at least 11 million illegal immigrants.

“If people have the right to get a job, it won’t depress wages as much … what we’ve tried to do is cause America to grow at a more rapid rate, and cause middle-class salaries to grow at a more rapid rate,” he said.

Whitehouse said he would vote against Grassley’s measure because it “would be a deal-breaker” for the entire bill, but also promised to seek a compromise prior to the vote in the full Senate. “I do have an open mind. … [The] amendment make[s] a lot of sense,” he said.

Democratic Minnesota Sen. Al Franken echoed Whitehouse, saying “I’m happy to work with Sen. Grassley on this, but I don’t want this to be a deal-breaker” during the markup.

“I find myself in that camp,” added Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee who controlled the fast-paced markup session.

Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein also backed worker protections, while lauding the overall bill. She said she met with older workers who had been sidelined in the current recession, and added that “I felt very badly for those people.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, followed the same path by voting against major changes to the bill while also lauding worker-protections.

“Some of the protections that were added by the Gang of Eight for American workers are really important,” she said.

Leahy has scheduled another series of amendment votes on Thursday and Friday. The bill’s advocates hope to bring the bill to the Senate floor in June.

“All the Democrats are sticking together and they’re voting down amendment after amendment after amendment,” Sessions told radio host Laura Ingraham Wednesday. “They’re going to ram it through without amendments of significance,” he added.

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