This is a partial transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," March 18, 2006, that was edited for clarity.
PAUL GIGOT:, HOST: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced this week that an immigration reform bill will be brought to the Senate floor this month, forcing debate that has divided the Republican Party. At the center of the controversy is a Bush-backed guest worker program, a plan that has drawn fire from many of the president's congressional allies, but an idea that western governors from both parties recently endorsed.
Colorado Governor Bill Owens joins me now from Denver. Hello, governor. Welcome.
GOV. BILL OWENS:, R-COLO.: Good to be with you, Paul.
GIGOT:: Quick question. Quick factual question: What percentage of your state's population is illegal do you think?
OWENS:: It's hard to say. But Colorado has about 4.5 million people and we believe there is probably 250,000 people here illegally. The problem isn't just that number. It's a number that is starting to exponentially grow and that's why it's more important than ever to solve this problem.
GIGOT:: What would happen to the state's economy, Colorado economy, if suddenly you stopped getting those willing workers, because that's I assume why they're coming? Would the economy suffer?
OWENS:: Well, I think it would but I also think, to be fair to the other side, that there are some significant costs because of some of these folks who are moving here illegally. And so what I would like to see is way to handle our worker needs legally and above the table and have them pay taxes, rather then have them underground with some of the problems that we're seeing through that illegality that sometimes they are forced in to.
GIGOT:: I want to talk about the guest worker idea that you have. But first, one of your fellow Republicans from Colorado, Tom Tancredo, is stressing border enforcement. More police, a wall along the border, maybe even deportation. Will that alone, do you think, solve this problem of illegal immigration?
OWENS:: No. That alone wouldn't. Though parts of that is a component of any successful attempt to reform this system. I do think we need to do a better job of reforming, protecting that border because any legal system we set up, if people can avoid it by simply walking across the border they will do so.
But I don't believe that that by itself is going to solve the problem. We do need to have a guest worker program that allows us to have people here legally to do the jobs that we simply don't have Americans able to undertake.
GIGOT:: Does that mean that you would favor actually building a wall along the 2,000-mile Mexican border. As Congressman Tancredo says, let's do Canada as well? Do you agree with that?
OWENS:: No, I wouldn't favor a wall along all 2,000 miles of that border. I think there are other ways to protect that border. Electronic surveillance, sensors. There maybe a need certain parts for a wall. We've already seen, small, in terms of miles, some walls put up.
More to protect the Mexicans in terms of not allowing them as easily to get into situations where they're going to put themselves in danger. We need to defend the border, Paul, because any plan with that porous border isn't going to work, a porous border and then the second step I believe is to set up a legal to bring in people that are willing to work under our laws and then finally keep all that discussion separate from the question of citizenship which has really bogged the debate down in so many different ways.
GIGOT:: Well, you've been working with the Krieble Foundation on an idea to bring in the private sector to help track workers and make sure who is here and who isn't. How would that work?
OWENS:: Paul, we're all very concerned that any program would get tied down in federal bureaucracy. None of us are very optimistic that the federal government is really going to be able to set up a system to establish guest workers. So what the Krieble Foundation based here in Colorado has proposed is something that I strongly support as well as many others around the country is contract with the private sector to help us manage this guest worker program. We do this in other areas where the federal bureaucracy may set the rules, but we outsource it, we contract it with the private sector. I think that is something we should do here. Once we set up a guest worker program, once we start to defend that border, I think we can have a system that works well for the United States and helps our question and helps protect us also in a time of significant homeland security challenge.
GIGOT:: Well governor, a lot of critics of the guest worker program say that it's really a disguised form of amnesty, which is their word, because you are rewarding people who have behaved illegally, who are here illegally, and you're rewarding them with permanent residence. What is your response to that charge?
OWENS:: Well, my response is I think that confuses with what we're actually trying to do with the guest worker program. First of all, I would require them to go through a background check. I would require at some point during the guest worker program to return to their country of origin so that they could come back legally.
And I would also not give them any place in line in terms of being a citizen. We need to separate guest worker as one track and one need for our country from citizenship which we can define as with -- in terms of however we want to define it. By keeping the two separate I think we can actually move to solve the problem.
GIGOT:: Very quickly. Would you recommend that President Bush veto any immigration reform bill that didn't contain some guest worker program?
OWENS:: It depends on if we thought we could get guest worker later. I do believe we need one complete with background check and with all of the transparency we can have in a guest worker program. I also think we need to defend that border better. I would prefer to see both done at the same time and I'm sure the president has that preference as well.
GIGOT:: OK. Thank you, Governor Bill Owens.
OWENS:: Thanks, Paul.
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