Talking Immigration With Secretary Chertoff

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Yesterday afternoon I sat down for an hourlong interview with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The subject was the immigration bill pending in the Senate, which Chertoff has been lobbying for. In this blog I’m just going to set out what he said, without directly quoting him, as fairly and accurately as I can.

We started with the probationary Z visa waivers—the section that would allow illegal immigrants who arrived before Jan. 1, 2007, to get a probationary status that would let them remain in the country and work legally. Chertoff emphasized that those who are found to have committed a felony (or two or three misdemeanors, beyond the misdemeanor of being in the United States illegally) would not receive probationary status and would be deportable. No one wants a safe harbor for these people, he said. Background checks on these people, he said, can be conducted very rapidly. Fingerprint checks (which net those with criminal records) can be conducted within 24 hours; we are already doing fingerprint checks on 80 million airline passengers, and police regularly do such checks very quickly. You can put the technology for this in 10,000 places with a laptop. Under current law, these people are here and we are not checking their status.

He hopes that the bill can get 9 million of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to step forward and apply for probationary status. Fingerprint checks and names with date of birth can determine their criminal status. This takes less time than the more rigorous background checks required for citizenship. Recent records are accessible by computer; old paper records are relevant in only a small fraction of cases.

Those who get probationary status would be eligible for Z visas, which would be issued only when the triggers in the bill are met. The rolls of probationary status holders would be frozen after, say, one year to prevent people who arrived after Jan. 1, 2007, to be eligible for Z visas (which would be for four years and would be renewable). Z visas would require people to have a job and pay a $1,000 penalty. You need to bring as many people as you can into probationary status in order to make it easier to find the kinds of people—gang members, drug dealers, terrorists—you want to get rid of. The marketplace for false identification is fueled by people who want to work as housekeepers, lawn mowers, etc. A Z visa would have a biometric chip, fingerprint, and photograph—the same as a passport.

Does this mean we’re going to a national identity card? Chertoff thinks we’re moving in that direction. The Real ID act passed by the Republican Congress requires a photo ID that is matched in the database by an identical photograph. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is requiring more people to get passports. There’s a move in some quarters to offer people a secure, tamperproof Social Security card. Chertoff thinks in time people will demand secure ID, to prevent identity theft among other reasons. For the time being, people will have to have a driver’s license with a photograph that an employer can check on an appropriate state database.

His point is that there will be a dramatic decrease in the number of people with false identification. The reason the employer sanctions in the 1986 act didn’t work was because of false ID. This bill, in his view, would help make it much easier for employers to detect false ID and its increased penalties would incentivize employers to check carefully. It could (I think he qualified this statement by saying, if properly amended) also change the Social Security law (or interpretation of the law by the Social Security Administration) that prevents that agency from checking if there are two people with the same name working.

This bill is tougher than the bill the Senate passed in May 2006. Do conservatives want a bill with tougher tools? You’re never going to get a one-sided bill through.

The fence. Chertoff is of the view that the fence is a limited tool in stopping illegal border crossings. A fence doesn't stop you, it slows you down. He notes that mayors in Texas (and Texas Gov. Rick Perry too, I add) don't want a fence. They argue that cattle won't be able to drink water and that relations with Mexican border towns will be soured. This makes a certain sense to me: A fence seems more sensible in open desert than along a river. Chertoff goes on: There's value to a fence in urban areas, like San Diego, Yuma, Nogales, Douglas, El Paso, where there's only a short distance between the border and the "vanishing point"—territory where an illegal immigrant can easily blend into a larger population. But fencing doesn't make sense in a wilderness area like much of the Tucson sector of the border. There the distance between the border and the vanishing point is large. Ground sensors, radar, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other means can enable the Border Patrol to pick up illegal immigrants more cost-effectively than a fence.

As for the fence, you build long segments of it step by step. That's why the number of miles of fence has not increased much since the fence bill was passed by Congress last September. But the 35-mile section adjoining the Barry Goldwater Firing Range will be completed this fiscal year, during which 70 to 80 miles of fence will be added. He points out that it took 10 years to build 13 or 14 miles of fence near San Diego.

Chertoff argues that border enforcement has already been improved under his watch. He promised in August 2005 to end the catch-and-release program (for OTMs, other than Mexican illegal immigrants) within a year, and it was ended in July 2006. He says that only a handful of criminal cases were filed in the 1990s, while in the last fiscal year 716 were filed. He argues that only a bill that attacks the problem comprehensively will serve the needs of Border Patrol personnel, who are being asked both to enforce the law stringently and to be humane. "The country owes the agents a resolution."

I feel a certain ambivalence about the immigration bill. I have long argued that we need to regularize the flow of immigration, and I welcome the provisions that, some years from now, would put a greater emphasis on high-skill immigration and less emphasis on extended family reunification. I think opponents of the bill are ignoring or undervaluing evidence that a combination of technology and changed attitudes would make enforcement of employer sanctions much more effective than it was after the 1986 law and evidence that border enforcement is being improved and that steps are contemplated, in the bill and otherwise, to make it more effective. I think the bill’s advocates have not had much success in getting these arguments across to the voting public, which thinks border enforcement is a sham and employer sanction enforcement impossible. I agree with much of what Chertoff says, but I think there are responsible criticisms to be made along the lines of this.


Take a look at this interview of James Piereson in National Review Online and this article he wrote for the May 2006 Commentary, and then see if you don’t want to buy his book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. I have, and I'm looking forward to reading it. I think I'll have more to say about it after I do.