MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida, co-sponsored the compromise bill along with fellow Republican Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska. He said he hopes a system based on how long people have been in the country will help his bill cut through the sometimes rancorous debate.
Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): In order for us to arrive at a compromise that would be acceptable to a 60-vote majority of the Senate, we figured, Senator Hagel and I working together, that perhaps approaching the group of illegals in this country not as a monolith but as people who have different gradations, that maybe that would provide us a vehicle that would bring along more people and more supporters.
BLOCK: And how would somebody prove that they'd been in this country for a certain length of time?
Senator MARTINEZ: Well, those are the kinds of details that in administering the program, first of all, won't be easy, but I think also are possible, and it'll be the burden upon those seeking to remain here that they prove legal whatever time they've been here. It's going to be also a very strong part of this program that we're going to have strong employment enforcement. So, strong employer enforcement will then only allow those to work here that are in fact here legally.
BLOCK: For the other groups, the people here less than five years, some would have to go back to ports of entry. The ones here less than two years would have to go home. What's the enforcement mechanism? How would you find those people and get them to where you think they should go?
Senator MARTINEZ: I think that's going to be a challenge, but we've got to be equal to the challenge. Part of the success of this bill will depend on appropriate funding in order to be able to enforce it. If we don't put the money into enforcement, we've just done a lot of talk. And so what I believe can happen is that through the employer enforcement, people are here to work, and so if they're here to work, there'll be intolerance, if you will, towards the illegals. And so without there being a legal vehicle by which to work, and with employers knowing that they cannot employ illegals, that's really going to set a whole new dynamic.
See, we've had a broken-down system. We've had an illegal system of immigration, if you will, that is now going to become a legal system. We're adding in this bill 15,000 border security agents. We're adding another 5,000 inspectors. And so these are all going to be part of this workforce that's going to then allow us to enforce this immigration system of ours, which will then be a legal system, like we've never done before.
BLOCK: Could it end up being essentially a roundup, putting all the people who've been here for two years or less into some sort of detention and sending them home?
Senator MARTINEZ: Well, no. This is America. And we have, you know, a lot of regard for how we do things here. And I think that while there will be, I believe, strong and strict enforcement, I also believe that the design of the bill is to provide a vehicle for people who are here who want to work and play by the rules to have a way of getting that done. And the vast majority of the people here illegally will have a path to do this. There'll be some inconveniences. There will be some things that have to be done. But, you know, I think the opportunity to live the American dream, to be legalized, is worth making some sacrifices like going back and reentering legally and things like that.
BLOCK: Senator, your bill would still have to get reconciled with the bill that came out of the House in December, which was all about border security, not at all about any path toward guest worker status or citizenship. Do you imagine that in the end there'll be some sort of legislation coming out that will bear any resemblance to what you want to have passed today?
Senator MARTINEZ: I sure do hope so. It's important that we come together on a version of the Senate bill. The president supports that kind of view. He has been for a comprehensive bill. And I believe he will continue to be supportive of that. I think as we have the support of the president, the Senate very solid in its vote, I think we'll then be able to move forward to a bill that, while it won't be exactly what we report out of the Senate, I think it will have a lot of the elements that we have in our bill.
BLOCK: And when do you think the Senate vote will happen?
Senator MARTINEZ: I think tomorrow.
BLOCK: And a lot of arm-twisting between now and then.
Senator MARTINEZ: There's been a lot of that this week already, but that's part of legislating. That's part of democracy, you know. It isn't pretty. It isn't always as one would design it. But at the same time it works. And I think the voice of a lot of people is being heard, and on both sides of this issue. Nothing's easy about it. But I do think that we're coming to a conclusion that is fair, that is just and that frankly is very American.
BLOCK: Senator Martinez, thanks very much.
Senator MARTINEZ: Thank you.
BLOCK: Senator Mel Martinez, Republican, of Florida, speaking with us from Capitol Hill.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.