WASHINGTON – A crackdown on illegal immigration will have to go forward without help from Congress, the Bush administration said Friday, asserting that an executive-branch-only approach is better than doing nothing.
Two Cabinet secretaries — Homeland Security's Michael Chertoff and Commerce's Carlos Gutierrez — said they hoped to have new tools to combat illegal immigration before moving further to cope with the problem. But Congress could not agree on comprehensive legislation.
The officials said they'll rely instead on tools already in their arsenal, some of which are already under way, including a plan to administratively sanction employers who hire illegal immigrants.
At a joint news conference, Chertoff and Gutierrez put the onus on Congress for any consequences that may be suffered by employers as result of the stepped-up enforcement effort.
"Our hope is that key elements of the Senate bill will see the light of day someday, but until Congress chooses to act, we are going to be taking some energetic steps of our own," Chertoff said. The steps will "significantly strengthen our hand with respect to immigration enforcement."
The White House emphasized that its package of enforcement changes was all it could do under "existing law" — the same law that President Bush has repeatedly called unacceptable.
"Although the Congress has not addressed our broken immigration system by passing comprehensive reform legislation, my administration will continue to take every possible step to build upon the progress already made," Bush said as the changes were announced.
Presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush has used his executive authority in the past to improve immigration enforcement, such as by strengthening border enforcement. She was pressed on why — if the new changes were such a good idea — Bush hadn't done them already.
Perino said that Bush had held off on sweeping administrative action while pushing Congress to pass better legislation to address the matter. With that effort now sidelined, she said: "We're going as far as we possibly can without Congress acting."
The administration rolled out a proposed rule that will require employers to fire employees unable to clear up problems with their Social Security numbers 90 days after they've been notified of such discrepancies in so-called "no match letters." Employers who fail to comply will face possible criminal fines and sanctions.
"This regulation lays out a clear pattern for doing the right thing which will afford protection for employers," Chertoff said. The new rule will be effective in 30 days.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chief author of the failed immigration bill, criticized the proposal. "Senate Democrats voted for real reform and for the sake of the nation, it's high time for Republicans to join in that effort," the Massachusetts senator said.
Recognizing that the crackdown could hurt some industries, particularly agriculture where more than half of workers are believed to be undocumented, Gutierrez said the Labor Department will try to make existing temporary seasonal agriculture worker and non-agriculture worker programs easier to use and more efficient.
In addition, Chertoff said he will try to use the department's regulatory authority to raise fines on employers by about 25 percent. Current fines are so modest that some companies consider them a cost of doing business, the agency said in a summary of the new enforcement effort.
The administration also wants to expand the list of international gangs whose members are automatically denied admission to the U.S., reduce processing times for immigrant background checks, and install by the end of the year an exit system so the departure of foreigners from the country can be recorded at airports and seaports.
The Homeland Security Department will ask states to voluntarily share their driver's license photos and records with the agency for use in an employment verification system. The sharing is meant to help employers detect fraudulent licenses.
Some of the initiatives are similar to proposals contained in the recent immigration measure which failed to pass in the Senate, though they are not nearly as sweeping.
Bush suffered a major political defeat when Senate immigration legislation that he had backed and Chertoff and Gutierrez helped draft failed to pass this year.
Senate Republican Mitch McConnell offered a different view of Congress' work on immigration, saying the White House and the Capitol heard the call of "countless, well-informed Americans" who wanted improved enforcement of border security and immigration laws.
He said the billions of dollars that Congress added for immigration enforcement and the administration's "enhanced commitment" on immigration enforcement will secure borders.
Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, who supported comprehensive immigration reform but voted against the final bill, called the proposed tactics encouraging.
But Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said the administration "can talk until they're blue in the face" but "I won't be happy until I see action that's more than just a press conference and words on a piece of paper."
The Senate legislation was opposed by many conservatives who complained that people don't trust their government to start new immigration programs since existing immigration laws are not enforced.
The Senate bill would have allowed millions of illegal immigrants to obtain legal status and eventually apply for legal residency. It also would have created a guest worker program and stepped up border security.
Some lawmakers have kept up efforts to tighten the border. Last month, the Senate added $3 billion to a homeland security bill and devoted the money to U.S.-Mexico border security.