MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was out defending the president's plan today. When I spoke with him earlier, he insisted that the plan does not grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well what an amnesty means is basically forgiveness without punishment. And what the president has talked about, among other things, is the requirement that people who would earn their citizenship would pay a substantial penalty, would make sure their taxes are paid and would take other steps to bring themselves into compliance with the law and to demonstrate fitness for citizenship. And you know when you pay a penalty or fine, that is a form of punishment. In fact, sometimes people commit criminal violations and they get fined for the violation. And that's not considered an amnesty either.
So I think if we understand that there will be some penalty paid, but that there will be an ability for people to pay their debt to society and then move forward along the path to citizenship, that explains how we can be in a position that is neither an amnesty nor a position that basically closes the door on 11 million people.
NORRIS: I want to ask you about the proposal to send the National Guard to the border. The president said that these additional duties would not overtax the National Guard. As you well know, not everyone agrees. Lawmakers, military analysts and the Republican governor of California, a large border state, say that this would overtax the Guard. What if they're right and how did you determine that the Guard could indeed handle these additional duties?
CHERTOFF: Well, I think the facts are very clear here. There are about 450,000 National Guardsmen. The total amount that would be on the border at any one time is less than 2%, and the mission that the president has designated here can comfortably fall within the capabilities of the Guard without disturbing either their obligations overseas or their necessity to be ready for a natural disaster in this country.
NORRIS: And the twoweek rotations. Does that really give them enough time to get their footing? To understand what they're really up against there on the border?
CHERTOFF: Well, typically what we've done in the past is we've exploited their specialties. I mean if we have an engineering unit, for example, we use their engineering capabilities to build some of the infrastructure at the border. So it's something that they're trained to do, and all we need to do is work out a, what we call a reception package that explains to the troops what the particular mission is.
NORRIS: How do you deal with the concerns that the Guard might cross the line toward law enforcement duties? I know the president said that their duties would be somewhat limited. But if they are limited, it seems like a catch 22. If they're limited, how effective can they actually be?
CHERTOFF: Well I think you need to recognize, of course, the duties that the Border Patrol performs cover both the actual apprehension of the migrants. But it also involves transportation. It involves operating surveillance equipment. It involves aerial surveillance. And most of these missions do not actually require contact with an illegal migrant. And I think the track record gives an assurance that there are many things the Guard can do to support the Border Patrol at the border that will not require them to step over the line.
NORRIS: The president has vowed to replace the catchandrelease system with something he calls the catchandreturn system, particularly those who are immigrants who come here from countries other than Mexico. If you do indeed beef up enforcement, where are you going to put all the people who are intercepted at the border? As I understand, there's not enough detention space, not enough detention employees at this point.
CHERTOFF: Well, there are a couple of elements. One is, of course, 85% of the people that we do catch coming across the border are Mexicans and we are usually able to return those to Mexico within less than 24 hours.
For the balance, it's going to be a mixture of reducing the amount of time it takes to send people back to their home country and also some additional beds and personnel. Now, one of the things the president has requested is additional money so we can ultimately get the number of detention beds up to between 27,000 and 28,000 next fiscal year.
We've also been successful in cutting the average time it takes to send people back home from about 66 days to about 21 days. And you can look at that in a way as tripling the number of beds because the less time people spend in a bed, the more beds become available for new detainees.
Working all of these elements, I think we're confident that even with the increased apprehensions, we can complete the job of moving from catchandrelease to catchandreturn.
NORRIS: You know the folks who actually work along the border are somewhat skeptical. The head of the Border Patrol Council, the group that actually represents the Border Patrol agents that work along the border, said that there is a sense among the rank and file that this is "smoke and mirrors."
CHERTOFF: Well you know I have to say that the people I've talked to at the border, the working Border Patrol agents, seem enthusiastic about the additional Border Patrol we're looking to put on the border. They're enthusiastic about the technology and the equipment we're rolling out on the border.
You can always find anonymous people to be critical or some people who are going to disagree. It's hard to say this is smoke and mirrors. This is literally billions of dollars in well thought out, proven technology and people resources that are going to make a huge difference in terms of what we can deploy at the border.
NORRIS: But right now you are throwing quite a bit of money at the border and in this world of limited resources in Washington what are you going to have to cut in order to pay for this?
CHERTOFF: Well, I think from a budget standpoint it would be neutral with respect to the current appropriation bill. We've built into the budget for next year additional enhanced resources for the border. So I mean, this is not a question of adding a huge amount of additional resources, it's rather a question of taking what the president has asked for, having Congress give the president that money, and then having us roll out the program.
NORRIS: Secretary Chertoff, thanks so much for joining us.
CHERTOFF: Good to be here.
NORRIS: We were speaking to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
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