Video: The border debate

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updated 3/29/2006 2:19:31 PM ET 2006-03-29T19:19:31

While thousands continue to protest around the country, the Senate is debating on an immigration reform package dealing with illegal immigration, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The program allows illegal workers to gain U.S. citizenship over time. 

Florida relies on close to a half million illegal workers to fuel its economy joins us this evening. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": Senator Mel Martinez, are we going to end up with a bill that has all the right pieces, something on enforcement at the border, something on employers' sanctions, but also an opportunity for people who are here to legalize themselves and for guest workers to come in to work? Will we get the whole package at the end? 

SENATOR MEL MARTINEZ, REPUBLICAN, FLORIDA:  I'm hopeful that we will, but it's still too soon to tell.  I think that we're in a much better position to get a whole package today than we were a few days ago.  What the Judiciary Committee did was great.  It puts a complete bill, a comprehensive bill on the floor and now we are going to debate it as senators do; about what is the very best way to go about accomplishing all of the goals? 

We have got to secure the border, we have to do something about the 11 million that are here without it being amnesty, and we've got to make sure that we do something to continue to provide the labor force that this country needs and demands.  And also frankly for national security, make sure that we do something to clear those that are here, so we know who they are, we know what they're doing and we don't just have an 11 million population, a state the size of Ohio, that we don't know who they are or why they're here. 

MATTHEWS:  I guess one part of it doesn't make any sense to me, which is even if you put the whole package together, the idea that if you have a legal way of coming in the country, what's to stop a person who is not on the list or doesn't make the cut to come in illegally?  In fact, this new package, this Kennedy-McCain Bill that was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last night, basically approves 1.5 million new farm workers coming in, that's what Feinstein wanted. 

Another 400,000 people who can make any kind of job, that's two million more people coming from the southern border.  What's to stop more people from coming in in addition to that if they choose? 

MARTINEZ:  Well first of all we have to do it legally.  Right now we have a broken down system. What we're creating is an illegal system of workers.  What we have to do is do it legally and then those people that are coming on that basis that are going to be here for a time, they're going to come to take a job that no American worker wants and then at the conclusion of that employment agreement or the time of their work, they'll go back home.  It will allow for a flow back and forth. 

Frankly we've done this at other times in our history and it's worked reasonably well.  What we haven't done is to allow for that imbalance in our economy and our work force where we don't have enough workers. 

Florida right now, there's an employer that they were saying they needed 5,000 workers to work in hotels in the tourism industry in Florida.  I was talking to another fellow who said they had 250 openings of which 900 people applied.  Not one was an American citizen, and so it just goes to show you that there's a demand for a work force that is not being met. 

We have to find a legal vehicle, knowing who these people are, knowing they're coming to a given job to account for that process to work in a legal way. 

MATTHEWS:  What happened to the market though, Senator?  We believe in the free market, you do too I assume.  If a sheet rock guy who is putting up plaster is making five bucks an hour, you'll have fewer workers available.  You give this guy $10 or $15 an hour, you'll find a lot more people preparing and teaching themselves out of high school, dropouts, whatever, to learn how to do sheet rock, carpentry, learn how to paint. 

People will go to a job if it pays a living wage.  Right now these jobs are barely paying a living wage, so it's the immigrant worker who is available.  Why don't we just raise salaries for people so you get the guys who are unemployed in this country to work. 

MARTINEZ:  If you create a legal work force, then it's more likely that the salaries will rise, but the example I was using about this guy in Florida needing 250 workers, they were nine to $14 an hour jobs, and he still could not get Americans to apply for them.  There is an honest to goodness labor shortage.  This is why the Chamber of Commerce supports what we're trying to do in a comprehensive reform. 

MATTHEWS:  They sure do, but those guys also want cheap labor.  Thank you, sir.

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