National Public Radio presidential debate

MR. EDWARDS: They're in a — they're in a very vulnerable position. And what we want to make certain, and that we would do in my administration, is that we are enforcing the laws that apply to employers. People in this discussion have talked about enforcing the responsibilities of employers not to have undocumented workers. That's true and that is a responsibility. And I would do that as president, until we had comprehensive immigration reform. But we can't continue to allow — in my state, we have agricultural workers who are being taken advantage of and abused and in many cases living in horrid, horrid conditions. And so —

MS. NORRIS: So I'm just going to try this one more time. How would you, quote, "take care of" —

MR. EDWARDS: What we would do is we'd use the power of the federal government and the power of our regulatory agencies to ensure that these people are not being abused. Like the — I'll give a specific example: the poultry workers that I met in Canton, Mississippi. We would make certain that their work conditions were safe. We'd make certain that they're in fact being paid for the work that they're doing, if they're working overtime, that they're being paid for their overtime. Those are all things that we would do in my administration.

MR. INSKEEP: Senator Obama, then Congressman Kucinich.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, this requires leadership. I believe that there are circumstances where, in fact, illegal immigrants are driving down wages. The question is, how do we fix it? Because oftentimes when it's posed that way, then the thinking is that somehow we have to pit low-wage American workers versus low-wage immigrant workers.

My answer is to stop illegal workers from coming in, hold employers accountable, but give the 12 million people who are here illegally, many of whom have been here for years, many of whom have U.S. citizens for children, to make sure that they've got a pathway to legalization. If we do that, then they do have rights that they can —

MR. INSKEEP: What about January 2009, still millions of illegals? Would you let them work? Would you encourage them to work? Would you give them rights as they work?

SEN. OBAMA: No, no, no, no. The — I think that if they are illegal, then they should not be able to work in this country. That is part of the principle of comprehensive reform, that we're going to crack down on employers who are hiring them and taking advantage of them. But I also want to give them a pathway, so that they can earn citizenship, earn a legal status, start learning English, pay a significant fine, go to the back of the line. But they can then stay here and they can have the ability to enforce a minimum wage that they're paid, make sure the worker safety laws are available, make sure that they can join a union.

MR. INSKEEP: Congressman Kucinich, would you let people work in January 2009 —

REP. KUCINICH: Absolutely, I mean, you know, we have to recognize that many of them have continued to work in providing services. We have to get them a path to legalization.

But you raised a question. The question is, are they driving wages down? The passage of NAFTA helped drive wages down. Wall Street speculation, ending in closing plants, has driven wages down. Non-productive military spending drives wages down.

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