This column ran June 25 in The Salt Lake Tribune.
Eleven million people. That's the number of undocumented immigrants estimated to be in our country, the result of our broken immigration system.
The question is not only what should be done with these 11 million people, but what should be done to prevent 11 million more from coming to the United States illegally. We can't afford to ignore this reality any more.
Is this legislation perfect or what I would have drafted? Absolutely not. But as it stands now, the Senate immigration bill makes sure that these 11 million people are paying into society, and fixes many of the pressing issues associated with our broken immigration system.
That's why I will vote for it this week.
This legislation significantly strengthens border security. An amendment by my colleagues Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., means that an additional 20,000 Border Patrol agents will be stationed along the southern border, more than doubling the current force.
It also requires that an additional 700 miles of fencing be built and that E-verify — an Internet-based system that ensures that employers hire only legal workers — be used by all businesses in the country, making it virtually impossible to work in the United States illegally.
Some have said this bill grants amnesty, but that's just not true. We have de facto amnesty right now, and this bill fixes that. The fact is that in order to be put on a pathway to citizenship, immigrants currently here illegally would be required to pay a fine, pass criminal and national security background checks and pay taxes.
Only after at least 10 years have passed and all five of these so-called "triggers" have been fully implemented can an illegal immigrant even apply for a green card. That's hardly amnesty.
I successfully added an amendment to create a mandatory biometric exit system at the top airports to increase border security from the inside out.
Preventing individuals from entering the country illegally is only one side of the coin; the other side is preventing them from staying here illegally.
Two additional amendments I introduced to limit public benefits to newly legalized immigrants are a part of this package as well. Ensuring that federal welfare requirements are fully complied with and that unauthorized workers are prohibited from receiving Social Security benefits protects American taxpayers.
And I'm going to continue to push to include that back taxes must be paid for anyone who's been here illegally.
The immigration reform legislation ensures that we can meet our labor needs in the short term and the long term.
First, the legislation creates a guest-worker program that's vitally important for the agricultural sector of our economy, including Utah's farmers and ranchers.
Second, the bill includes several amendments I introduced to improve our high-skilled employment base and education and training in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — to ensure we can continue to compete in a global economy.
In the short term, the legislation creates a real-time, market-based escalator that allows additional high-skilled H-1B visas to be granted when these jobs are needed here in the U.S., and fall when they're not.
The legislation also increases the number of visas allocated each year, which is important because the cap on these visas was met in only five days this year. And another one of my amendments included in the bill creates a STEM education and training account which takes money from visa fees and sends it to the states to use towards STEM education programs.
Finally, the legislation includes a number of additional provisions I fought for that also impact Utah.
It permanently extends a visa program for religious workers and establishes strong penalties for growing marijuana on federal land.
I've served in the Senate the last two times immigration has been undertaken — in 1986 and in 2007. I voted against both of those pieces of legislation because they were the wrong approach.
I believe that the bill before the Senate today takes many important steps toward being the right solution for our country, but more needs to be done.
I will work with the House of Representatives to ensure that we continue to improve this bill for American families and taxpayers.
Orrin Hatch, a Republican, is Utah's senior U.S. senator.