Chertoff, Bush Look for Next Move on Immigration

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been the Bush administration's point person on its comprehensive immigration reform bill, which collapsed in the Senate on Thursday night. Chertoff talks with NPR's Robert Siegel about where the White House will go from here.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is one of two cabinet secretaries who played a leading role in crafting the immigration bill and in lobbying for it. Chertoff told me he's optimistic that Congress can still pass immigration legislation.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): I think if you actually look at the way the bill was treated on the floor, it has survived remarkably well in terms of the basic elements of the scheme. There was always an understanding there'd be some adjustments or tweaks at the margin, but I believe that the core support at the center is continuing to hold very well.

SIEGEL: Of course, this bill hadn't yet been approved by the entire Senate and there's no House bill, so we don't know what would have reached the president's desk. But with something like sun-setting the guest-worker program after five years in the context of a big compromise, would that be something that could still win the president's signature?

Sec. CHERTOFF: Well, I do think that the five-year sunset is a kind of a self-defeating notion because it creates a temporary worker provision, which is critical to meet our economic needs and it is also one of the principal ways in which we reduce illegal immigration, but then it sets a five-year termination date, which of course, is a little bit inconsistent. But this is the kind of issue, which I think can be ironed out either when the Senate completes its work or when the matter hits of the floor of the House of Representatives.

SIEGEL: Is part of the problem here that with the president's approval ratings hovering around 30 percent and by the year and a half left to his term that the administration just doesn't have a strong bully pulpit?

Sec. CHERTOFF: No, I actually disagree with that. I think the president has been consistent and strong in speaking out about this for years whether his poll ratings have been high or low. I think what's difficult about it is that it's an emotional issue. It's an attempt to address the problem that has been around for 30 years and has not been fixed in those 30 years. But I think you've got more going for this bill now than I've seen in any immigration bill for years and years.

SIEGEL: Well, you're putting a very brave face on what happened last night in the Senate. You had all those advantages going for it up until the time of the failure to vote closure.

Sec. CHERTOFF: And I think it really reflected running out of time. I mean, one thing I've learned, Robert, in observing the Senate is they operate on a very tight schedule. In this case, what happened is in order to make way for another piece of legislation, the leader pulled it off the floor that gives this an opportunity over the next few days to reach the final agreement on these amendments. And then I think there's no reason not to go forward because I think both leaders have indicated they want to move forward. The public expects a solution. I think it would be a very bad outcome and a sad commentary on our system of government if we walked away from the only solution to a problem that has been festering for decades.

SIEGEL: Well, think worst-case for a moment. Let's say there is no new immigration bill, what does the administration do then? Do you crack down more on employers or try to add more security to border? What do you do?

Sec. CHERTOFF: Well, Robert, let me - I'll give you very vivid picture of what will happen if we don't have the bill. We will stay in the current situation. Obviously, we will continue to enforce the law as vigorously as we have been doing. That leads to some unhappy situations when people, who have been in this country, who have children who were American citizens, get arrested and deported. But that's what the law requires, and we're going to enforce it. You're also going to see an increasing number of localities passing their own individual immigration bills.

They're going to be everywhere from ordinances that create sanctuary cities to ordinances in cities that say it's illegal to rent to undocumented workers. And that means businesses are going to be faced with hundreds of inconsistent requirements. There's going to be a lot of confusion. There's going to be a lot of difficulty. As we continue to work without a legitimate temporary worker program, crops will rot in the field; fruit will not be picked. Some of those farmers will finally decide they want to move their farms south of the border or the north of the border into Canada so they can get the workers. I don't see any outcome in the status quo that is a good outcome.

SIEGEL: Well, the status quo includes millions of people coming across to do these jobs despite efforts to enforce the law.

Sec. CHERTOFF: Well, but actually the status quo were showing a decrease in the people coming across the border. Now, I'm hearing criticism and complaints from growers in the western part of the United States who are telling me that their crops are not being picked. They are complaining about that because we have succeeded in enforcing the law.

I don't have sympathy for people who complain about our enforcement of the law, but I do recognize the reality that that is a measure of the fact that we have cracked down on this illegal migration. Now, the question is how are going to address that economic need? Are we going to let the fruit and the lettuce rot, or we're going to come up with a way to get temporary workers and to do that job?

SIEGEL: So the theme song here is from "Spamalot." It's "We're Not Dead Yet" is what you are saying.

Sec. CHERTOFF: No, I would say that the theme song here is about being determined. That, you know - this is the old Tom Petty song, "We Won't Back Down." And that's what's going to carry us across the finish line.

SIEGEL: Well, Secretary Chertoff, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Sec. CHERTOFF: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, talking with us about the immigration bill.

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