The Immigration Law Debate from One Former Homeland Security Secretary's Point of View

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," May 21, 2010. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Tonight: Well, this is not going away. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.


GOV. JAN BREWER, R - ARIZ.: Mr. President and Secretary Napolitano, it is your responsibility to secure our borders. And I plead with you and I ask you respectfully, Do your job!


VAN SUSTEREN: Well, it certainly is no secret illegal immigration is strangling the state of Arizona. Now, it's been going on for years, and the feds have not solved it. So now Arizona is taking charge, passing a statewide illegal immigration law. And the feds -- well, they don't like what Arizona did, and it's beginning to look like war between Arizona and the United States!

Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security John Morton tells The Chicago Tribune Homeland Security will not necessarily process illegal immigrants referred to them by Arizona.

Assistant Secretary Morton's office gave a statement to "On the Record," reading, in part, "This administration has dedicated unprecedented manpower, technology and infrastructure resources to the southwest border over the course of the past 14 months. It has prioritized smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses first on criminal aliens who pose a threat to our communities." Now, the statement goes on to say, "The president ordered DoJ to examine the civil rights and other implications of the Arizona law, and that review will inform the government's actions going forward."

Joining us is Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor and former Homeland Security secretary. Nice to see you, Governor.

TOM RIDGE, FORMER DHS SECRETARY, FORMER PA GOV.: Greta, nice to join you. Thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: Governor, what a mess Arizona is! And the reaction by this administration is to refer the statute to the Department of Justice. And Arizona seems to be begging for help.

RIDGE: Well, you know, I have some empathy. Once a governor, always a governor. I mean, I can appreciate what the governor's trying to do. I took a look at the implications to Arizona. One out of six kids in the schools are probably the children of illegal immigrants. One out of three people without health care, illegal. Ten, eleven, twelve percent of the prison population, illegal. So they got a problem. It's a law enforcement problem. It's a social problem. It's a financial problem.

And I do think she said in a very respectful way to the president of the United States and the Congress of the United States -- for 25 years, this problem has existed. Now, I don't particularly -- I'm a little uncomfortable with the whole "reasonable suspicion" piece in that law. I mean, I did read the law. It's only 16 pages long -- a little uncomfortable with that.

But I'm even more uncomfortable that it's been 25 years since the Congress has dealt with this. And frankly, I think American people are sick and tired of it. And I know the president has complained about he needs Republicans. And I say respectfully to the president there are probably some Republicans out there who would help you if you'd meet them halfway. But if you expect them to just embrace a Democratic proposal, that's just not the way the system works.

So you have the bully pulpit. I think the Arizona's governor's made an appropriate request. There are some Republicans out there, including yours truly, would like to help you, if you can find -- if you try to find some middle ground.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, here's what I don't understand, is that -- is that -- we just for starters -- I've pulled a bunch of letters that then Governor Napolitano, who is now the Homeland Security -- that she wrote. I've got one that she wrote to Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, December 30th, 2005. And she says, "The circumstances at the border have become so dire that I declared a state of emergency in Arizona's four border counties so I could use state crisis months (ph). That's in '05."

Then in March of '06, she writes a letter to Rumsfeld again and to secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and she's calling for help again. And she said, "There is no problem more compelling affecting the state of Arizona today than illegal immigration." And she goes on about, you know, they need a -- they need some sort of common sense renewed commitment.

But it doesn't stop there. She wrote again in February 20th, 2007. She writes to Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security, again, and she talks about the illegal drugs coming in from China and that -- and to -- last week, we had the same problem. And then in March of 2008, another letter that then Governor Napolitano writes. And she says, you know, they can't wait, that, "Real solutions to fix our broken borders cannot wait that long. And while we wait for real progress on the virtual fence, border communities in Arizona will continue to be strained by the millions of dollars in costs they must absorb."

And yet I don't see her out there, like, pushing the president on this.

RIDGE: Well, you know, I think one of the secrets of this town is that to take on such a bold and controversial issue, you do need the support, the consent, and ultimately, the leadership of the White House. And so I think she's probably constrained by the simple fact that for whatever reason, political or otherwise, for the time being, the White House is not inclined to move the issue.

Once they move the issue -- and remember, President Bush tried to move this issue, to his credit. He tried to move the issue, spent a lot of political capital. He was criticized, probably even more by his own party, but he tried to move the issue.

Right now, I think the secretary is probably constrained by the fact the White House doesn't move it. And whatever there's political calculation or whatever, it's wrong. I mean, the president needs to understand and, hopefully, that under his leadership, if he's willing to give some ground, they might be able to find a solution.

But if you continue to ignore the reality, that the border's porous, that the federal government's done nothing for 25 years and that the status quo is the answer to a longstanding problem, then I think most of the voters in Arizona or elsewhere are saying, But you're supposed to lead. This is a controversial issue, but it's a big issue for America. We have no immigration policy. We have no southern strategy. Mr. President, take the lead on this. Try to find some common ground and solve the problem.

Enforcement's part of it, Greta. I get that. But we have to understand the reality. We're not sending 14 million people home. So let's figure out a way to legitimize their presence. And that's not making them citizens...

VAN SUSTEREN: But I honestly -- I don't even see this being done. And you know -- you know, you have got -- you've got the new administration. If anyone should get it, it's secretary of Homeland Security who was the governor of Arizona -- if anyone should get it.

RIDGE: Absolutely.

VAN SUSTEREN: She -- she -- I don't -- I don't care what the realities and practicalities are of being in this town. You know, she knows. And she's been there. And she ought to -- and she ought to -- she ought to stand up for this. That's the first time.

But if you -- if you're not going to do something, why criticize Arizona, who is desperately trying to do something? I mean, their answer is to refer the statute to the Justice Department to take a look at it to see if Arizona's done something wrong. Why not instead figure out a way you can help Arizona?

RIDGE: Well...

VAN SUSTEREN: And look at the statute!

RIDGE: Yes, well, there's a simple premise in the bill, and I kind of buy into it. The premise of the bill in Arizona is, if you broke the federal law -- we're going to comply with the federal law -- you've broken the state law. And why have they done that? Because the federal government hasn't done anything for 25 years. Pure and simple. That's what they're trying to do.

They're trying to do the federal government's job. They'd rather not do that. But in order to get that job done, to get the resources, to get the commitment to deal with the reality of a porous border and 12 or 14 (SIC) illegals here, you're going to need the president to take on a leadership role and find some common ground between Republicans and Democrats.

And I push back a little bit on you, Greta. I don't think -- I mean, who knows whether or not the secretary has argued for it privately. But at the end of the day, on something like this, she still takes the lead from the White House. Pure and simple. And that's why the governor is calling the president to try to find some common ground I think is very appropriate.

VAN SUSTEREN: I guess -- you know, and I'd be willing to think that maybe she might be doing it behind the scenes, but it was most unimpressive when she was critical of the statute and hadn't read it. I mean, that -- that -- that's not a good start to be convincing to me that behind the scenes, she's really lobbying to fix -- fix a real problem.

RIDGE: It's pretty awkward when you've already written letters to her predecessor, complaining and lamenting and crying out for help, as her successor -- I mean, her predecessor in Homeland Security she wrote. Her successor is now dealing with the same problems that she -- confronted her in her state. But again, I think this is more a question of leadership from the White House than it is from a cabinet secretary.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, it's interesting, if -- if -- I'm just -- I looked at the map today of where Arizona was and the border of Arizona is a huge border, of course. But even, like, Las Vegas -- Las Vegas is right on the border of Arizona. I mean, you -- this is not simply an Arizona problem. It bleeds into California, into Nevada, into New Mexico, Utah, even though most of them are coming up through there. I mean, it affects - - it affects so many states. Can that border be secured?

RIDGE: I think it can. I mean...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, then, what -- why -- then tell me why isn't it? Because everyone says it can be and everybody says it should be. Why isn't it?

RIDGE: Well, part of the problem is, is that I think Congress looked for a monstrous (ph) technological solution. I remember on my way out the door as secretary of Homeland Security, I suggested to folks these UAVs -- there are certain places we ought to a build a fence. There's no question about it. But I don't want to build a gray wall. But I do think they need to beef up enforcement, and that's not just sending agents out to get people who are working, but that's to build up enforcement along the border. I don't know why we simply don't triangulate and use the UAVs...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, she's...


VAN SUSTEREN: ... the new governor, Governor Brewer, has actually made -- that's one of her requests that she sent to the White House yesterday.

RIDGE: It's legit (ph).

VAN SUSTEREN: She says -- one of her points is that she wants to use -- she's asked for that.

RIDGE: Well, I think...

VAN SUSTEREN: And she doesn't get replies -- I mean, she doesn't get answers to her letters! This one just went yesterday, but these letters go in a black hole!

RIDGE: If I were the governor, I'd be very -- of Arizona, I'd be very frustrated because I understand that there's been these pleas, there's been public conversations, private conversations, and nothing's forthcoming. But if you really want (INAUDIBLE) you're never going to eliminate the risk of illegals. But you build the physical fence. That's fine. But I don't know why we don't (ph) UAVs. You can have sensors, photo surveillance, sensor surveillance, UAVs. You triangulate and you give Customs and Border Protection several helicopters. You build some detention cells. And when the sensors go off, you go get them. Pure and simple.

And then you got to go down to President Calderon and say, You have a responsibility. We're good neighbors. Economically, we're dependent on each other. We understand you like the flow of American dollars in and we need the flow of American -- of Mexican labor in, but you need to help us protect the integrity of our immigration system and the integrity of our border.

And I -- I regret -- I think he misspoke. I mean, that's a word that people re throwing around these days -- and he said we're criminalizing migration? No, we're criminalizing appropriately illegal migration. That's what they're criminalizing. That's what Arizona's trying to do.

But the biggest takeaway from that whole issue in Arizona -- the federal government has not done their job, period.


RIDGE: Zero. Absolutely.

VAN SUSTEREN: I mean, and the thing is, to say that they've sent a lot of things and done a lot of things -- the problem is that they have not -- they have not succeeded.

RIDGE: Yes, well, and I -- it's a tough issue. It's a controversial issue. It's -- people -- it's like the third rail of American politics.

VAN SUSTEREN: At least try!

RIDGE: Thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, at least try.

RIDGE: That's all -- I think that's what...

VAN SUSTEREN: I mean -- I mean, I think...

RIDGE: ... I think the governor wants. I think...

VAN SUSTEREN: I know it's a tough (INAUDIBLE)

RIDGE: ... that's what America wants.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... but at least try.

RIDGE: Amen.

VAN SUSTEREN: Governor, thank you, sir.

RIDGE: Thanks, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Always nice to see you.

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