Saturday March 23, 2013

It's a busy time in our national conversations -- around kitchen tables, in Town Meetings, and in the halls of Congress -- about a lengthening list of big questions. Many of these issues are on the minds of Vermonters these days, if my visits around Brattleboro last weekend are any guide. One that comes up often is the need to fix our broken immigration system.

Our immigration laws are outdated. After years of debate, consensus -- at last -- is slowly but clearly emerging that these laws need to be reformed.

Of course we are a nation of immigrants. Past immigration has helped shape the nation, and immigrants have contributed much to our state, strengthening Vermont's economy and improving the quality of life that we have always wanted for ourselves and for future Vermonters. 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 like Brattleboro.

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. It is a history not without its challenges: My ancestors faced anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bias when they arrived in America, like so many before them.


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But also like so many immigrants, they persisted in following their dreams, and I believe they would be proud to know that a Leahy these days works in the Senate to further advance the interests and the vitality of the Vermont communities that they came to call home.

In this new 113th Congress, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been working toward bipartisan agreement to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality. In the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the first hearings I chaired focused on the need for comprehensive reform. I am looking forward to our considering legislation in the Senate to finally address the nation's mounting immigration problem: Bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, reducing the weighted bureaucracy that stalls our immigration policies, invigorating our economy, and promoting family unity and vibrancy. And just as I have with many pivotal legislative challenges, including most recently the consideration of gun violence legislation, I want to ensure that the Judiciary Committee has an open, public and transparent process.

For too long, Washington's attitude toward immigration policy has started and ended with bumper sticker slogans. In Vermont we know that our immigration policies mean much more: Cultural richness through refugee resettlement and student exchanges; economic development through programs like the immigrant investor EB-5 Regional Center program; trade and tourism with our neighbors to the north in Canada; ensuring that Vermont's dairy farmers and agriculture industry have the workers they need to sustain their day-to-day operations, year ‘round; and ensuring that families are able to stay together, regardless of race, creed or spousal orientation.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing our overall immigration needs and challenges and opportunities. Of course our policies must address enforcement and border control, but they must also honor and act on our foundational ideals and national interests: The idea that we are all immigrants, and that it is this diversity that has helped make ours the land of opportunity.

Congress faces an important moment. Support for addressing comprehensive immigration reform has led to renewed vigor and energy. In an historic election voters have sent lawmakers to Capitol Hill with a message: The time for comprehensive immigration reform is now. Today more women and more minorities, including a record number of Hispanics, are serving in Congress. They represent states and districts across the country, and they will have important voices in the conversation of how best to fix our ramshackle system. Few topics are more fundamental to who and what we are as a nation than immigration.

I am frequently reminded of my Irish immigrant roots, and never more so than around St. Patrick's Day. I want America to remain a nation of opportunity for all. Now is the time for meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform. I remain committed to making sure Vermont's needs and ideals and voices are reflected in this important debate.

Patrick Leahy of Middlesex chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will be the first stop for action on comprehensive immigration reform legislation. He has led efforts in Congress to boost worker visas for dairy farmers, strengthen refugee protections and promote economic development through immigrant investment.