NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A year ago, most political observers would have dismissed the idea of a comprehensive immigration reform bill as pie in the sky. Today a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators offered an outline that includes a key Democratic demand - a path to citizenship for those millions who entered the country illegally; and key Republican demands for tighter border security and a program to keep track of foreigners who overstay their visas.
New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said the country's political landscape is now ready for immigration reform.
SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER: The politics on this issue have been turned upside-down. For the first time ever there's more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it. We believe we have a window of opportunity to act. But we will only succeed if the effort is bipartisan. By their presence today, my Republican colleagues are making a significant statement about the need to fix our broken immigration system.
CONAN: One of those Republican colleagues, Arizona Senator John McCain, said the current system is not working for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawn, serve our food, clean our homes, and even watch our children while not affording them any of the benefits that make our country so great. I think everyone agrees that it's not beneficial for our country to have these people here hidden in the shadows.
CONAN: Tomorrow, President Obama is expected to present his ideas on immigrant in Las Vegas. Later in this program, we'll talk with Marshall Fitz, director for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress and with Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and Fox News analyst.
We also want to hear from immigrants on the program. What's in this for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We begin, though, with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who joins us from the White House. Mara, always good to have you on the program.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good to be here.
CONAN: And we'll get to what we know about the details in a moment. But Mara, it was just a little over a year ago that Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would be one of the lesser controversial, least controversial elements of this new bill. What's changed between now and then?
LIASSON: Well, we had an election, and President Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, which is one of the fastest growing groups in the electorate. And Mitt Romney did as badly among Hispanics as any other Republican candidate has ever done. He only got 27 percent. That's what changed.
CONAN: So the calculus has changed primarily for Republicans?
LIASSON: Primarily for Republicans. That's why Chuck Schumer said today, as you heard him say, you know, for the first time ever there's more risk in opposing this than supporting it. It's true that in the House of Representatives there's a slightly different calculus because more than 70 percent of House Republican districts have 10 percent or fewer Latinos of voting age.
So they live in a slightly different universe, where they don't have the same pressures on them as national Republican leaders, who understand they can't win presidential elections if they don't do better with Hispanic voters. But the stars have aligned on this, and you saw that. It was an extraordinary spectacle to have a group of eight senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, coming together on an issue that's been so contentious in the past.
CONAN: And if the Democratic Caucus holds together in the U.S. Senate - always a question - but nevertheless if it does, you don't need that many Republicans to get something passed.
LIASSON: No, but Chuck Schumer made it pretty clear he wants this to be a big bipartisan vote with overwhelming - he said we want to see it pass in an overwhelming and bipartisan fashion, and I think it will. Republicans are basically suing for peace on this issue.
And what he said is that Americans are opposed to illegal immigration, but they support legal immigration. So let's fix this system so people aren't here illegally, we have a way to get the workers we need, immigrant workers that we need, and find a path to legalization and eventual citizenship that he called tough but fair for the undocumented workers who are here.
CONAN: And the major hurdle that will have to be overcome, and we've heard this word already, is this path to citizenship, and critics will call that amnesty.
LIASSON: Right, but in the new formulation of the Republican Party, and Marco Rubio has used this, and John McCain used it today, he says we already have de facto amnesty because these people are not going to be deported. They're here in America, nobody's going to do anything about them. They're not going to self-deport, as Mitt Romney infamously suggested during the campaign.
So we already have amnesty, meaning they're here, you know, in violation of the law. So let's, you know, rationalize the system so that they are here legally. And it's going to take a long time. They're going to have to learn English and pay back-taxes and perhaps pay a fine, and it's contingent on the border being secure.
CONAN: Contingent on the border being secure. Now, there's been a sharp reduction in the number of people coming into the country. Partly that's better border control, but partly that's the economy too.
CONAN: Nevertheless, how are they going to certify...
LIASSON: Well, we don't know the details of that yet. We have to figure out how does the border get certified secure. We don't know exactly how the employment verification system is going to work.
CONAN: That would require employers to use something like E-Verify.
LIASSON: Something like E-Verify. And how would the legal immigration system work? In other words, business are clamoring for more high-skilled workers. There are a lot of details left to be sketched out and determined. However, the basic principles have been laid down, and I think you're going to hear the president tomorrow in Nevada lay out principles that, as the White House says, mirror the principles of the bipartisan Senate group.
So the principles are there. They have to work out the details, but I don't see any one of these issues being a big stumbling block.
CONAN: One of the areas that - there would be two areas of exemption, as laid out in the proposals. That would include first those who would have qualified under the DREAM Act; those would be people who came into this country as minors. They didn't do this voluntarily, it says.
LIASSON: No, they - agricultural workers and young people brought here illegally as children will be on a faster path to citizenship.
CONAN: And there is also, as you mentioned, reforms proposed for the legal immigration system, a greater number of green cards, the ability to work in this country, for people who have certain high-valued skills.
LIASSON: Right, the idea is to figure out what kinds of workers America needs and make it easy for them to get here. You know, it's very, very hard. You know, one of the common refrains you hear from business leaders and Republicans is that when you get a Ph.D. here in America, if you're from abroad, you should have a green card stapled to your diploma.
CONAN: And it's interesting, as this proposal comes out, you read the bipartisan framework that's emerged over the weekend. Even the language is significant. It speaks sometimes of those who are here illegally. It also speaks sometimes of those who are unauthorized presence in the United States. Boy, that's a change in terminology.
LIASSON: Yes, it is, and I think you're going to hear more about undocumented workers, unauthorized workers, than you are going to hear about illegal aliens.
CONAN: And so the problems there are going to be to get this through on a big bipartisan bill, we heard Senator Schumer say coming out of this that he hoped that there would be a markup sometime in March or early spring and then on to passage late spring, early summer.
LIASSON: Yes, which is very fast-tracked. And then of course the House would have to pass it. But I think it will get done this year. And it is really extraordinary. I mean this is a huge, contentious issue, and we have bipartisan compromise right at the beginning. And the president's on board, Republican leaders are on board. Even John Boehner in the House, where there's much less support for this, says that we are going to do this, something this year, and he says that there's work on a bipartisan basis occurring in the House as well.
I guess the big question is: If they get this, will it help them get other big bipartisan compromises on other issues? I don't know. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves here.
CONAN: We don't want to have to declare that peace has broken out here in Washington, D.C.
LIASSON: Yes, that's right. That would be imprudent.
CONAN: That would be imprudent. But is - just one element of rivalry, the Senate somehow seems to be the engine of legislation just at the moment.
LIASSON: Well, yes, that's because it has - it's more evenly divided, and it's subject to different kinds of political pressures than the House. The House Republican Conference lives in a different universe. They have districts that are very safe. The only thing most Republicans in the House have to worry about is a primary challenge, not a general election challenge.
And you know, very, very few of them represent districts where President Obama won. So it's just - they operate under different pressures, and that's why you see the Senate taking the initiative on these issues.
CONAN: In the past there have been, well, at least some members of the Tea Party who have reacted viscerally against this legislation.
LIASSON: Oh, and I think there will be today. There will be people who react viscerally against this legislation. The question is how many are there, and will they be able to stop it. Don't forget in the past George W. Bush tried something very similar to this, and his own party rebelled against him, and he couldn't pass it.
CONAN: But it's interesting, you saw the evolution of John McCain, who in that George Bush proposal was one of its sponsors, then ran for re-election, a challenge from the right, as somebody who promised that there would be no amnesty, and now has come around again.
LIASSON: Right, but I don't think he would call this amnesty. John McCain has really been for this all along, and he did - he lives in the modern Republican Party, and when he was running for president, and he had to go through a primary, he had to deal with those pressures.
But he's never not been for some kind of immigration reform. He, like everybody else, said that they aren't for amnesty, and depending on how you define it, I guess nobody is.
CONAN: Yeah, he ran a bunch of television ads during that primary and then during the general election, very tough on border control.
LIASSON: Right, and I think he would say he's still tough on border control, and so would Chuck Schumer. They are promising to secure the border and verify it, or certify it, before the path to citizenship gets triggered.
CONAN: One element of this would also be a commission to I guess conduct that verification. It would include who?
LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. We don't know exactly who it would include and how it would work. But yes, how do you certify the border? There's no doubt that border crossings are down now. What happens when the economy takes off and that becomes a more appealing magnet for people to leave their countries and come here in search of work?
So there are a lot of things we don't know yet, but the principles have been laid down, and at least for the moment we are not hearing much opposition to this.
CONAN: Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent, with us from the White House. And we will await the president's proposals when we hear them from Las Vegas tomorrow. Thanks very much for your time.
LIASSON: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking about the bipartisan plan for immigration reform presented today. If you're an immigrant, call and tell us what's in this plan for you, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. We'll have more after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Less than an hour ago, senators from a bipartisan gang of eight presented their plan for immigration reform in the U.S. Aspects of the proposal leaked before the announcement, and several officials have already responded.
At today's White House news briefing, Secretary Jay Carney said President Obama welcomes movement and progress on the issue and will travel to Nevada tomorrow to continue a conversation with the American people on the importance of moving forward with comprehensive reform.
Two members of the House, where the proposal is expected to face some opposition, spoke with CNN about the plan. Luis Gutierrez, Democrat from Illinois, identified the proposals on a path to citizenship as the biggest challenge for passage but did not see it as insurmountable. And Mario Diaz-Balart, the Republican from Florida, was similarly optimistic, saying the devil's in the details, but we've dealt with that devil. Now it's an issue of just filing legislation.
So if you're an immigrant, call, tell us: What's in this plan for you? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now is Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity and Marshall Fitz of the Center for American Progress. Thank you both very much for being with us today.
LINDA CHAVEZ: It's great to be with you.
MARSHALL FITZ: Thanks for having us, Neal.
CONAN: And Linda Chavez, let me start with you. As Mara Liasson outlined earlier, maybe this proposal does stand a very good chance in the United States. Does it get out of the House?
CHAVEZ: Well, I think it's going to be a lot of tough negotiation, and of course I think the biggest problem is that many of the Republican members, particularly the new Tea Party members, get a lot of pressure from their constituents. The anti-immigration movement has been quite effective. Some of the organizations, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, have been very active in - particularly in primaries.
They've helped defeat some pro-immigration Republicans. So it's going to be a challenge, and this bill, which I think actually is a very sensible one, looks a lot like what President Bush tried to pass in 2007. There are some modifications, but we're back in some ways where we were. The big difference is that we've had an election, and one could make a good argument that the decline in the number of Hispanics voting for Republicans, particularly for the presidential race, helped defeat the Republicans this time around.
CONAN: Marshall Fitz, is this back on that path?
FITZ: Back on the path to...?
CONAN: To a comprehensive reform like the Bush administration reform, what, almost six years ago now?
FITZ: Yeah, it is about six years ago, but my, the landscape has changed, both the political and policy landscape, as Linda said and as Mara was reflecting in your earlier comments, in her earlier comments. The November 6 election was a game-changer, and I think that the political landscape has shifted such that it will be very, very difficult for Republicans to vote against a bill that has the type of bipartisan support that was expressed in the framework that was presented today.
So I think that not only have we seen a change in the political landscape, but we're dealing with a very different dynamic on the ground than we were six years ago. Six years ago, there was still large-scale undocumented immigration. Right now, net illegal immigration is at or below zero, and that's going to make a big difference.
Sure, when the economy picks up there will be more pressure on the border, but there are a variety of factors that have changed, Not only the U.S. economy but the Mexican economy has remained strong, and the demographics are shifting in Mexico such that there's not such a big pool of folks who are desiring to come here.
So I think the fact that the border is far more stable than it's ever been, and now the political imperative is present and obvious to Republicans means that we've got a good chance of getting over the finish line.
CONAN: Net immigration, those coming in balanced by those who are returning to their homelands, whether those are Mexico or places further south or further east or west for that matter. Linda Chavez, as you look at this, is the path for citizenship for those already here going to be the principal stumbling block, do you think?
CHAVEZ: I hope not because the fact is if there was - if Mitt Romney had gotten his way, and 11 million illegal immigrants had suddenly disappeared from the American economy, it would have had the effect of an atom bomb hitting New York City. I mean, it's really - we need the people who are here. They are performing vital services.
They come here for work. They have one of the highest work ethics of any group, higher - the males have higher labor force participation rates than any other group in American.
So one would hope that the Republicans have wakened up to the fact that we do in fact need not just high-skilled but also low-skilled workers in our economy. And what we really need to do is to find a way to bring these people out of the shadows. I think everyone, including immigration supporters, want to get rid of anyone who has a criminal record, particularly anyone who's committed a violent crime.
But people who have been here, lived here, become part of the economy, established families here and are good, upstanding members of their community ought to be given the chance to live here legally and at some point get citizenship.
CONAN: Marshall Fitz, this has not been put into the form of legislation. As the cliche has it, the devil's in the details. Do you see a couple of traps? For one thing those in the country without authorization as the document says would be forced to register with the government. A lot of people are going to have a problem with that.
FITZ: Actually, I don't think it will be as much of a problem as one might think. I think the notion that you've got to come forward, register, pay a fine, learn English and really got to the back of the line, not that there's a specific line for them to get in but that there will be a line for them to get in, is pretty much the standard framework for legalization that we've adopted and I think that most undocumented immigrants are willing to embrace.
Frankly the real question is less about whether they'll come forward than whether or not the line to get in is meaningful. And I think that in that instance the devil is in the details. I personally believe that this group is committed to making sure that it's a path to citizenship that is not in name only, that it's not a paper path but a real path.
And if it is, then I think you'll see large-scale participation along the lines of what we saw with the deferred action program that the president and DHS announced for the DREAM Act kids. They've come forward in record numbers, and they continue to come forward. And so I think that that's kind of a model for what we should expect if Congress can hopefully get its act together and join - lock arms on this issue and pass the type of immigration reform that our country needs.
CONAN: Another thing that's unclear yet, as Mara Liasson told us earlier, is this commission that would somehow verify that the border is now secure. Who's going to be on it, and what's their definition of secure?
CHAVEZ: Well, I think this - you know, Neal, I think that is a problem because, you know, as you mentioned earlier, we are now at net zero immigration, and I think that if anybody were to really fairly look at what's happened in terms of immigration, illegal immigration, we've actually hit lows that we have not seen since the 1970s. So the fact is our borders are pretty secure.
And I'd just like to add one more thing about the citizenship from the point of view of a conservative. It is in conservatives' interests that these people become United States citizens. We don't want a nation in which we have a portion of the population, a rather large one, that does not feel identification with America, with American principles, and we should be urging people to become citizens. Ours should not be a stumbling block in the path to citizenship.
We should be doing everything we can to make sure that these people become good and responsible citizens for the future.
CONAN: And let me ask you then what might be termed a cynical question: Are Republicans going to vote for a proposal that would authorize citizenship for 11 million people who are likely to vote heavily Democratic?
CHAVEZ: Well, I think, you know, that's one of the questions, how likely they are to vote Democratic. We have certainly seen both with President Reagan and George W. Bush that you can get more than 40 percent of Hispanics voting for the Republican nominee. And you can go back as far as 1972, and in most years, at least 30 percent of Hispanics have voted Republican in presidential races. The exceptions have been when immigration and anti-immigration sentiment has been at its peak, as it was when Bob Dole ran.
We had an initiative out in California that was very anti-immigrant, most of which has been struck down as unconstitutional. And of course in the last election, this was a major problem because of Mitt Romney's own rhetoric. So I think it's silly of the Republicans to think that they cannot win Hispanic votes, but they certainly can't win Hispanic votes if they are going to be a stumbling block to significant immigration reform, which we need not just to help these people who are here illegally, we need it for our economy to grow.
CONAN: We want to hear from those immigrants in our audience, 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. We realize these are just principles thus far, but from what you've heard of this plan, what's in it for you? Let's begin with Amit(ph), Amit with us from Salt Lake City.
AMIT: Yeah. Hi.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
AMIT: So I am an immigrant from India. I am a - I have done my Master's, and I'm working on my Ph.D. in electrical engineering. And something that's been - that they have introduced is more green cards for people with Master's or an advanced degree in STEM field. So that's what's in it for me.
I mean I've been here for 13 years, and I'm still, you know, waiting for the green card, even a path for a green card or a citizenship. In the past it has always been - the senators and the congressmen have always talked about illegal immigration, and they tend to group illegal and legal immigration together.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, let me ask you, Marshall Fitz. The way I read this proposal - and again, it's not legislation yet and a long way from being passed - if it is passed the way it looks today, that electrical engineering Master's degree would qualify Amit for a green card.
FITZ: That's exactly right. And I think that one can safely assume that any proposal that makes it out of either the Senate or the House is going to have some strong provisions for high-skilled immigration in particular on the green card front and particularly for the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
This is something that the president has repeatedly talked about. It is something that bipartisan groups of senators have supported, and the same thing on the House side. So I think Amit will be pleasantly surprised if we're able to get across the finish line with this bill.
CONAN: And Linda Chavez, a lot of people say these are exactly the people, having educated them here, we want to keep here.
CHAVEZ: Absolutely, and in fact there really is bipartisan support for this. Even some of the more outspoken anti-illegal immigration folks have acknowledged that we need to keep people here who've actually, many of them, have earned their educations here or have at least gathered experience as temporary workers here. These are exactly the kind of people that will help lead us into the future.
And again, we oughtn't just be giving them green cards to allow them to work here. We ought to welcome them into our society. We have to help them become Americans. And so I think a path to citizenship for these STEM workers is also extremely important.
CONAN: Amit, thanks very much for the call. Good luck with your degree.
AMIT: Thank you for taking the call.
CONAN: We're talking about the immigration proposals unveiled by the Gang of Eight - four senators, four Democrats, four Republicans - earlier today. Our guests are Linda Chavez, chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a syndicated columnist, political analyst for Fox News. Also with us, Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
This email from Jenny: My husband is an undocumented immigrant who's been here for over 13 years. He's a tax-paying, decent person that left Mexico due to the violence. Having a path to citizenship would be a godsend because not to have an SSN - a Social Security number - affects all aspects of his life. He can't get a driver's license, so police tow his car and store it for 30 days anytime he has a traffic stop. Judges and lawyers take advantage of his fear of getting deported any time he gets a ticket and has to go to court, thus racking up thousands of dollars in fines. He obviously cannot get a good-paying job and has to work the third shift as a janitor to earn less than the minimum wage. He cannot go to community college without a Social Security number. The way the system is set up, it kicks undocumented immigrants once they are down and keeps kicking them so they can never get up.
And Marshall Fitz, this would change that if this goes according to plan, and he would be able to register and get a temporary visa to continue working here.
FITZ: That's absolutely right. And Jenny's email, I think, makes the case as persuasively as anyone could that there are literally millions of undocumented immigrants who are working and contributing tremendously to both our economy, to our communities. And the - their lack of status is destabilizing families, as Jenny refers to, and you know, this is something that - it's not who we are as an American people to keep families in such an uncertain and untenable position for so long.
Yes, we don't want to grant amnesty to lawbreakers. Everyone agrees with that. But what we're talking about and what these principles reflect is not amnesty. It's about rewarding people who are working hard, who want to play by the rules and who want to earn the privilege of citizenship, and I think that's something that all Americans can and should support.
CONAN: Linda Chavez, I want to ask you another - ask about another part of this, and that is the people who arrive here on perfectly valid visas and then overstay. That's estimated to be maybe 40 percent of those in the country illegally. And there seems to have been no system to keep track of who comes in and who comes out, and that just seems common sense.
CHAVEZ: Well, we used to have a system. We used to require all persons who are living in the United States who are not permanent residents to register once a year. I think it was in January. There used to be public service announcements I can remember on television, telling people that they had to register their whereabouts. I think that is common sense.
It is commonly used in other countries. If any of your listeners go to Europe, one of the things they do is they take your passport at the hotel and they register it with the local police in many countries. And when you leave, they register that you've left, and of course they've got your visa entry and exit.
We don't do that here, and that's unfortunate because it's not just a question of people overstaying their visas to take jobs in the U.S. It's more importantly a question of people overstaying their visas who might, in fact, be people who could cause security threats to the United States.
So we ought to be doing this in any instance. It is something that I think is technologically not that difficult to do, and this is certainly something that will have, I think, unanimous support from people in Congress.
CONAN: This email from Andrea: I would like to comment that I rarely hear comments regarding the situation of immigrants here legally on a work visa. My husband and I have been here since 2000. He has a work visa, has to renew it every three years, where we all have to go home to do it anyway in the U.S. Embassy in London at great expense.
We are told by our immigration lawyer that we're on a wait list for a green card, but it has been going on for years. In this time I've not been able to work nor could my teen as only he has a legal right to work. Do we know if there's any speeding up of the process for legal immigrants waiting for green cards? We just have a few seconds left. Marshall Fitz, can you answer her question?
FITZ: Well, I think one of the things that we've been focused on in trying to reform the legal immigration system is just what's she's talking about, which is to clear some of the backlogs that have grown up around both family and employment immigration.
And frankly, I think USCIS, which is the benefit sum of DHS, has done a good job of really trying to be more user-friendly, more customer-friendly. But they can only do so much without having some of our laws changed that allow more immigration flows to go through the current channels.
CONAN: Marshall Fitz, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
FITZ: Thank you.
CONAN: Marshall Fitz of the Center for American Progress. Our thanks again to Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity. We appreciate your time today.
CHAVEZ: Great, thanks to be with you.
CONAN: When we come back, we're going to continue this conversation. If you're an immigrant, we want to hear from you. As you've listened to the outlines of this plan, what's in it for you? 800-989-8255. Stay with us. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: Last hour, the members of the so-called Gang of Eight: Senators Marco Rubio, Jeff Flake, John McCain and Lindsey Graham - all Republicans - along with Senators Dick Durbin, Robert Menendez, Chuck Schumer and Michael Bennet - Democrats - presented a plan to reform immigration in the U.S.
We want to hear from immigrants in our audience. From what you heard of it, what would this plan mean for you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us to talk about what this proposal might mean for business owners is Richard Cohen, president and owner of Richard Cohen Landscape and Construction Company in Lake Forest, California. He joins us today from a studio at KUCI in Irvine. Nice to have you with us today.
RICHARD COHEN: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And I understand you employ about 60 people. Of those, how many would you estimate are immigrants?
COHEN: Well over half. You know, probably, over three quarters of the people are immigrants.
CONAN: And some here legally, some not?
COHEN: Well, I would assume so. Obviously, we have to go through certain procedures to verify them and to fill out I-9s and various other paperwork but, you know, it's hard for me to tell exactly what documents are legal and what documents are not legal.
CONAN: And so this is one of those industries, landscaping, in which it is believed to be a large percentage of the workforce is - who is here - unauthorized workers.
COHEN: That's correct. That's correct. In fact, you know, we just cannot find Americans that want to do this kind of work. It's hard work. It's out in the hot sun. It's difficult work. It's, you know, hard on the body and stuff. But the Americans don't want to do that kind of work. Teenagers nowadays don't even want a temporary job in the summertime in our industry.
CONAN: And so this is what you have to do in order to meet your contracts. And as you look at this new legislation, one of the things you're talking about is, I guess, it's a version or a beefed-up version of the E-Verify system. Employers would have to say, we, you know, checked this guy's security number, or this woman's social security number, and it worked out OK.
COHEN: Obviously, that's going to be a component of this from what we understand, but no one component can stand on its own. We really need to have the whole thing working together. That's why the talk of comprehensive immigration reform, this stuff started, you know, way back under President Bush, and it's high time that something gets done on a comprehensive basis, 'cause if all the legs of this chair don't work, the chair's going to fall over. So we really need all of these things to work to satisfy the needs of our businesses.
CONAN: And which critical areas that concern you the most?
COHEN: Well, you know, start out, we need a reliable source of employees, and we need to have enough employees. And that varies based on the economy, based on how busy we are. So we need good employees. We need to have legal employees so that they can get driver's licenses and they can drive our trucks. They can do route work. They can, you know, they can fulfill the needs that we have as a business.
So, you know, we need a supply of workers. We need to be able to verify that they are legal so we don't run the risk as a business of either having our workers cleaned out from us in one fell swoop of ICE or somebody like that. And then we need to know that the workers that are here have a way to become legal so that they have a future and can become an active, integral part of the American society.
CONAN: What's your turnover like?
COHEN: Well, actually, my turnover is very low in my business. I've been in business over 35 years, and we generally have people that have been with us for many, many years now. Sometimes, you know, the amount of work varies, and they may have to take temporary layoffs and stuff. But as soon as work picks up, we bring those same people back.
CONAN: And do you think it's fair that employers, at least under this legislation, as I understand it - again, it's not legislation yet, at least this proposal - that it's fair for employers to be required to make sure that their employees are here legally?
COHEN: You know, obviously, you're not going to get this thing through unless you have, you know, all the components; the securing the border, the employment verification and stuff.
CONAN: It would help a lot if they were issued cards that you could trust.
COHEN: Yes. I mean, that - if they were issued cards that we can trust, then I would be fine with making it my obligation to check those cards and make sure that they were legal to hire. But it doesn't do me any good if I can't get enough people to man my projects and I can't, you know, I can't help support the economy because I can't get enough workers to do the job. So we really need to get that component done too.
CONAN: There is one proposal, an exemption - agricultural workers, since they perform such a vital service, would have a faster track to green cards. Would you lobby to put the landscaping workers on that track too?
COHEN: Yeah, probably. But, you know, it's a lot more than just landscapers that need these kind of level of people here because without the what you would call undocumented workers or illegal immigrants or however you want to term them, without those people, the hotel industry, senior services, you know, like nursing homes, janitorial, hotel industry and landscaping and maintenance, all of us are on the same boat, about needing enough people to fill out our workforce and to fulfill the contracts that we have. And that's a significant amount of our economy. There's a lot of dollars involved in that. So we really need to make sure we have a source of workers.
CONAN: So, certainty, should it arrive this year in the form a new bill, would be greatly welcomed by you.
COHEN: Absolutely. Absolutely.
CONAN: Richard Cohen, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate your candor.
COHEN: Thank you.
CONAN: Richard Cohen owns a landscape and construction company in Southern California. He joined us from KUCI in Irvine. And let's see if we'd get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Geralda(ph). Geralda with us from Placerville in California.
GERALDA: Yes. Hi.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
GERALDA: First of all, I would like to thank you guys for this program. It's been wonderful.
CONAN: Thank you.
GERALDA: And also to say that I've been here for eight years, been trying to do the right thing all, you know, ever since I came, although I did not come here legal. So - but I have been going through school, trying to have my own - I do have my own business and trying to get a driver's license, get all the tax done. And many, many times, I faced discrimination. I faced problems that I just wish would have been easier. And also to ask what will be the process for people who cross the border.
CONAN: The process for people who crossed the border illegally?
CONAN: As I understand it, they would still be deported.
GERALDA: I see.
CONAN: But the...
GERALDA: So that...
CONAN: This is after the passage of the legislation?
CONAN: That would be under a different circumstance. Those who are already here before the legislation would be passed would be available to this new process. They have to register and go through, you know, paying taxes and learning English and civics lessons and that sort of thing. But as far as I understand it, and maybe I'm wrong, the legislation hasn't been drafted yet. After the legislation, if you cross the border illegally, you would be subject to deportation.
GERALDA: I see. OK. So in that case, for those who cross the border, they won't have anything for them to stay in the U.S. yet, you know, green card?
CONAN: I'm not sure that it would - again, it's not signed up as legislation yet, so we don't know what the details are. So if - it would be - there might be - I'm just looking at - remembering the last piece of legislation, which was back in the Reagan administration when they declared amnesty, and was everybody who was there by a certain date, well, they could have a path to citizenship. Anybody who came after was not subject to that. Of course, there's now 11 million people who arrived after that. So that's, I guess, the continuing problem.
GERALDA: I see. OK. Well, thank you.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much, and I'm sorry I couldn't get you a better answer to your question.
GERALDA: No problem. You have a wonderful day. And thank you for the program.
CONAN: Thanks again for the kind words. Here's some email. This is from Carrie(ph) in Houston: Do to new immigration proposals address people here under temporary protected status, TPS? Currently, these people can work here legally and pay taxes but have no path to citizenship. They're also not able to enter and exit the U.S. freely. Will their situation change?
And again, this is something that's going to have to be clarified when this legislation is drafted by the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. From Manass(ph) in Kenosha, Wisconsin: I'm a 15-year-old honor student in Wisconsin. I moved here legally with my parents from India when I was four, due to my dad getting a work visa for his job. About eight years back, we apply for green cards. Our application is still pending. How will this bill affect legal minor immigrants like myself?
Boy, these are good questions. They're going to have to wait the clarification when we see this legislation and how it works out. At least as far as I understand it, there would be more green cards available to people like Manass, but I'm not expert. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Jan. Jan with us from Columbus.
JAN: Hi. I'm glad to have you take my call. I'm not an immigrant myself but I am the mother-in-law of one. My son-in-law, a wonderful young man, came here when he was 21. He's been here for 13 years. My daughter and he have been married for nine years. I have three grandchildren. Basically, my - well, the thing I like to mention was that I know a lot of people have been offended at the idea of the so-called pathway to citizenship.
My greatest concern - my whole family's concern is that he be allowed to be here legally, be allowed to be here working, not have to worry about traffic stops and so forth. He would love to be an American citizen. After 9/11 he went to the recruiters to fight for our country. And, you know, 'cause he was just as appalled as everybody and was, of course, told you have to be a citizen, you know, to be - come back someday. But basically, what we would really love is to have him be able to be out from under the shadows. And if there had to be a compromise, this so-called citizenship was, you know, put on to a backburner, we would even take that, just so long as he could come out, like I said, come out of the shadows.
CONAN: Out of the - because that is - it's hard for those not in that situation to understand how much it changes your life.
JAN: It really, really does. My husband is a retired Air Force officer, probably one of the most honorable men that I have ever known in my life. We'll be married 37 years so that's quite a statement. But he feels that this young man is just sterling quality. And it's very difficult for all of us. We are very honest people, but we have all been having to be part of this - keeping him safe here. And that we've had immigration lawyers. We've gone through about four different times in the past nine years. The answers have always been, don't leave the country. If you'll leave the country, it's in another whole legal ball game. They say, stay in the country and live in the shadows, stay under the radar because we keep hoping for immigration reform. And that's from the lawyers.
CONAN: Jan, thanks very much for the call and we hope things work out.
JAN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And let's see if we go next to - this is David. David with us from San Antonio.
DAVID: Hey, Neal. How are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well. Thanks.
DAVID: Awesome. Well, mine is a similar story to the ones we've been hearing. I am a Mexican national. I came here on an investors visa, which allows me to have businesses here and work at them and to work in them but it does not provide a path to citizenship. And I guess my only comment is we were - I am all for providing a path to citizenship for unauthorized workers, just don't forget about us, the ones who are here legally and who would love to become citizens.
CONAN: David, we constantly - when we do these programs hear from people in your situation and others, and there are all kinds of variations, believe me. The bureaucratic maze of legal immigrants is a nightmare. People wait years and their status is unclear, and it just seems to take forever.
DAVID: Yes, it does.
CONAN: All right. Well, good luck, David. We appreciate the phone call.
DAVID: Thank you very much.
CONAN: We'll end with this email that we have from Linda: I am Norwegian-English, white grandmother whose ancestors have been living this country since the 1800s. My son-in-law is from Honduras and was an "illegal," quote, unquote, until December 8th when he was discovered and then deported back to Honduras.
He's a wonderful hardworking man. He's been the sole support for his family, which includes his wife, my daughter, an 8-year-old stepdaughter and his own son, age two. These three members of his family, all legal American citizens. He's now separated from them, unable to provide the income they need to live. My daughter takes medication for depression and drug addiction, is unable to work. My Honduran stepson is a wonderful father to both children. We all love him, and his absence is placing his family in crisis. They will need extreme governmental financial support to continue without him. What could be done to allow him to be in this country legally so he could be reunited with his family and continue to support them as he was doing in the past?
One of the many questions that's going to be raised and maybe answered by new legislation as we heard earlier today. Eight senators - four Democrats and four Republicans - proposed reforms to the immigration system, which they described as broken. Republicans will give in on the so-called path to citizenship for 11 million or so immigrants in this country illegally. Democrats have agreed to tighter security controls on the border, and a program that would also check on whose visas have expired and those who've come to this country on a visa and then overstayed their visa.
There's obviously many more complications to these program. Stay tuned to NPR News throughout the day for more details and more reaction. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.