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Despite Recession, Immigration Reforms Essential to Normalize Labor Flows

Interviewee: Michael Chertoff, Former Homeland Security Secretary
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
March 16, 2009

The global economic crisis has triggered calls in some U.S. policy circles for tightening immigration rules to prevent non-Americans from competing for scarce jobs. Yet despite conditions, lawmakers should be preparing changes to immigration policy in anticipation of the country's economic revival, says former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who had jurisdiction over immigration issues. "We are going to need to have some workers coming from other parts of the world to do the jobs that Americans will not be willing to do," Chertoff said. In addition, he said, U.S. officials should increase contacts with Mexican authorities to work out a system for rationalizing the legal flow of migrant workers into the United States. He also stressed that tough enforcement of immigration laws, at the workplace and border, must be at the core of comprehensive reforms.

As Homeland Security secretary you lobbied for comprehensive immigration reform legislation that ultimately went down in defeat amid cries of "amnesty." Now in this economic crisis, is the country ready for immigration reform legislation, anything resembling the previous bill?

The original bill, which we put forth in the Senate in 2007, reflected a bipartisan consensus about what would really address the whole range of concerns people had. It had tough border enforcement; it had tough interior enforcement. It created a path [to citizenship] for temporary workers, and it also created a path to regularize people here illegally but only after they paid a fine and got to the back of the line. It reflected a compromise that I still think is the sweet spot. As to the question of timing, you know obviously when you have an economic downturn, and people are worried about their own jobs, you are probably not at a moment that is propitious for launching immigration reform. On the other hand, there is something to be said for getting it right now before the economy starts to grow again, and the demand for workers becomes increased because eventually, we all hope and believe we are going to have a vibrant economy, and we are going to need to have some workers coming from other parts of the world to do jobs that Americans will not be willing to do.

In order to get the political climate that will allow for comprehensive [immigration] reform, I think there has to be a clear understanding that the federal government will continue to be energetic and vigorous in policing the border.

We are actually seeing a drop in border arrests to something like 1975 levels. To follow your point, does this create political space perhaps for trying to smooth out maybe the boom and bust cycles of immigration flows, particularly the Mexican border?

What it should demonstrate is that when the Bush administration committed, and a couple of years ago really changed the dynamic at the border, that the administration fulfilled that promise. Now it does not mean that the work is done but as you point out there are dramatic decreases in every sector and in the number of people that are seen coming across the border illegally. That is a very positive sign. The Pew Hispanic Center last year put out a report saying that the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. had stabilized or even declined. That's another positive metric. But, in order to get the political climate that will allow for comprehensive reform, I think there has to be a clear understanding that the federal government will continue to be energetic and vigorous in policing the border, and in enforcing the law in the United States.

There have been some calls amidst the passage of the U.S. stimulus bill for taking further steps and requiring the E-Verify system for hiring workers for construction jobs, for example. There is also concern about high-end, higher-skilled immigrants.  Are you concerned about this sentiment?

I can well understand why people will say if we are putting billions into stimulus, what we want to do is stimulate jobs for Americans, not bring people from other countries to get the benefit of the stimulus. However, I do have to say again, in the long run we are going to need to have workers because when the economy grows again, we'll need to have people to do work that Americans don't want to do. Or in some cases, when you talk about the high-end technical jobs, there are people with technical skills that would really add value to this country, and would actually become job creators themselves. That is something that we need to remember because if we cut off our nose to spite our face, what we are going to do is hamper our ability to grow our economy.

It appears that there is not enough coordination between U.S. and Mexican officials on policies such as creating some sort of rational flow of workers. Was that your experience that there were not enough contacts with Mexican officials?

It is a very good point. When we were in office, we did start to talk to the Mexicans about whether we could come up with a cooperative way to deal with this issue. The easiest way to help us control the flow of illegal aliens is to have the sending country cooperate with us as the receiving country. When the time comes to take another crack at comprehensive immigration reform, it will be important to bring the Mexicans into the conversation so that we can say to them, "Look, we can open up a valve for legal immigration and legal temporary work, if you will help us control the illegal immigration." And we were getting good cooperation with the Mexicans even in the last few years but maybe bringing them into the larger dialogue could have some very useful benefits.

One of the iconic symbols of immigration policy--some people say of failure, others of successful policy--has to do with the fencing. Is it realistic to consider a fence, whether virtual or real, that really spans that border?

I checked the last day I was in office, which was January 20th, and 601 miles had been completed. And I think there were thirty miles or so that were under way--of a total of about 660 miles that we thought was necessary to have on the border. And then, on top of that physical fence, there is virtual fence; there is technology, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and things of that sort. It is critical to give the border patrol the tools that they need to police that border. And that is not only because you want to keep illegal migrants out but you want to keep drug dealers out; you want to keep other smugglers out. And you also want to have the ability to protect your own border patrol. To me, fencing is not a panacea and it was never argued to be a panacea but it is a very important tool, just as the unmanned aerial vehicles are important tools, just as the doubling of the border patrol are.

Another issue that towards the end of your term generated controversy was the No-Match rule. Civil libertarians and some business sectors were upset with it. There seems to be some call now for more emphasis on the E-Verify, on focusing on employers rather than rounding up employees who might have been violating the law.  What do you say about a potential shift in emphasis that way?

[We] are still stuck in this box, where you have two incompatible responses; humanity and respect for the law that we are not seeming to be able to reconcile.

No-Match did focus on employers, and No-Match is kind of the backside of E-Verify, [which] is what you do when you hire somebody. But No-Match is what happens when you get a letter from Social Security that says you filed a return on behalf of an employee but there is a problem with the social security number and the name. Sometimes, and in the minority of the cases, that is a clerical error, and in that case, it is good news for the employer to take a step to correct that. But frankly, in a lot of cases, it's because they got a person working illegally or with a phony social security number, and there is no argument that I can understand that we will let people continue to do that if they are not authorized to work here.

When we were in office, we were obviously very focused on employers. We prosecuted dozens and dozens of employers and sent them to jail for having illegal workers--I don't mean a couple but large numbers of illegal workers. But when you discover that a business has 50-60-70 percent of its employees who were illegal, in addition to charging and going after the employer, what are you going to do about illegal employees? You will simply let them go and work someplace else? If we are serious about enforcing the law, then when you are confronted with evidence of lawbreaking, at a minimum you have got to deport the people who are here illegally.

Some immigration experts have said the reason there is little legislative reform is because Americans are ambivalent about it; they don't want to take the steps that will really crackdown on people, even while many others are upset about the lawbreaking aspect. How do you read that from your experience?

Look, the argument that inflames people the most is the argument that someone who is here illegally should be allowed to continue to break the law because we do not want to do anything about it. On the other hand, the argument that appeals to people who are sympathetic is, most of these people, not all of them, but most of them, are here for nothing more than to do a hard day's work for a reasonable amount of pay so they can feed their families. And many of them are, other than the fact that they are here illegally, decent people. Instead of trying to square away the circle on this, what we need to do is figure out a way to deal with the whole problem comprehensively. What that means is you first make it clear that you are going to clamp down on new people coming across [the border], second you look at the people who are here and at least, in many instances, offer them the opportunity to get some kind of legal status. But they are going to have to also essentially acknowledge their wrong doing, pay some kind of a penalty, and square themselves with the law. I think if you came out with that approach, you could get a majority of people on both sides to say that is humane, but also recognizes the importance of the rule of law. Because we were unable to get that, we are still stuck in this box, where you have two incompatible responses; humanity and respect for the law that we are not seeming to be able to reconcile.

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