WASHINGTON – The United States will "get control" of its borders, and passing a temporary worker plan for foreigners is one way to do it, President Bush said Tuesday.
"We're going to get control of our borders and make this country safer for all our citizens," Bush said amid criticism from some lawmakers who don't think the administration is doing enough to crack down on illegal immigration (search).
Bush last year introduced a plan that would allow undocumented workers to get three-year work visas (search). Those visas could be extended for another three years, but the workers would then have to return to their home countries for a year to apply for a new work permit. Bush has repeatedly argued that his plan does not provide amnesty for illegal workers.
"I'm going to work with members of Congress to create a program that can provide for our economy's labor needs without harming American workers, without providing amnesty and that will improve our ability to control our borders," Bush said as he signed a $32 billion homeland security bill that includes increases for patrolling borders.
Meanwhile, two top administration officials also touted the president's plan in testimony on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as lawmakers debated how to deal with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States.
Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (search) and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (search) gave no assurances on allowing illegal immigrants anything beyond temporary work status and said the administration's plan would help tackle the difficult security and labor questions posed by illegal immigration.
"This is a system in desperate need of repair," Chertoff told the Senate panel, adding that he is working to get away from the current "catch-and-release" style of border control in favor of methods that make sure those who are caught are returned to their home countries. Often, illegals caught at the border are released on bond and never show up for their hearings.
"If they think that they can come across the border and get released, they're going to keep coming," Chertoff said. "Return every single illegal entrant — no exceptions."
Last year, he said, border patrol agents made more than 1.1 million apprehensions, and since 2001, the government has deported about 300,000 criminal aliens. But he also noted that during the last budget year, 120,000 of the 160,000 non-Mexican nationals apprehended by the Border Patrol were released because there is no place to hold them.
"That is unacceptable, and we are going to change that immediately," he said.
A Matter of 'Very Substantial Urgency'
Some GOP leaders have suggested that Congress should first take up the enforcement issue and deal with the more complex issues of undocumented workers and the demand for low-skilled labor later on.
But Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (search) said the debate was coming at a crucial point in time in which domestic fears are growing over the increasing number of undocumented workers and how they affect the workforce and homeland security.
"It is a matter of very, very substantial urgency," he said.
Specter said lawmakers must balance the need to fill what economic experts say is a major future need for workers in the health care and others sectors as the country's overall population ages.
There are two main bills under consideration that aim to address immigration: one from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., another by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and John Kyl, R-Ariz. Both have been referred to the Judiciary Committee.
The McCain-Kennedy bill provides visas for up to six years, after which the worker must either leave the country, or the government must be in the process of issuing him or her a green card. The Cornyn-Kyl bill would require illegal aliens to return to their home country to apply for the temporary worker program.
Specter said it was unlikely any agreement would be reached before the end of the year because of the heavy schedule the committee faces, including the nomination of Harriet Miers (search) to the Supreme Court.
Chertoff and Chao said a two-pronged approach to immigration – as the administration has proposed – is necessary. One prong would focus on immigration enforcement, the other on jobs.
The job component, Chao said, is "an integral component in improving the safety and border security of the nation ... [and] will enhance border security and interior enforcement by providing a workable and enforceable process for hiring temporary workers."
She said workers who participated in the program would be issued biometric cards that would allow them to cross U.S. borders with few problems.
But Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., questioned the administration's plan and said many people in his home state frown on the word "amnesty." He said allowing illegal immigrants to work while turning a blind eye to their illegal status "undermines that tremendously important aspect of being American, that we're all being treated equally under the law."
Chao at one point responded: "Those who come forward will not be offered an automatic pass to citizenship and should be expected to pay a substantial fine or penalty to participate in the temporary program."
Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., questioned the administration's stance that immigrants — legal or not — would not be able to remain in the country indefinitely if they otherwise paid taxes, worked and did not commit crimes.
Durbin also criticized what he said was a conflict in the administration's immigration policies. While the administration lifted employer provisions after Hurricane Katrina (search) that would allow low-wage, undocumented workers, Durbin said five undocumented evacuees were deported from an El Paso, Texas, shelter after their immigration status was learned, and said it "really raises serious questions about the consistency of the policy."
Kennedy said his bill would allow those undocumented workers who have played by the rules a chance to earn citizenship, but it does not give them more opportunities than those who went through legal channels to get legal, permanent resident status.
In an apparent attempt to rebut some of his critics, Kennedy asked Chertoff if it would be possible to perform mass deportations.
"It would be hugely, hugely difficult," Chertoff responded, and to consider it, "we're talking about billions and billions and billions of dollars." But the secretary acknowledged in response to a later question from Kyl that he knew of no plans by anyone to execute mass deportations.
The committee discussed several other issues, including how to beef up workplace involvement in enforcement, speed up the paperwork process for immigrants caught at the border, and increase help from Mexico and other Central American countries.
Chertoff also assured the senators that with the latest round of congressional funding allowing an increase of 1,500 border patrol agents, he felt the border could be watched adequately in concert with an increase in technological observation tools.
A Tricky Job
Senators at the hearing on immigration also questioned Chertoff and Chao about reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials posed as Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors as part of a ruse to net undocumented workers in July. Chao oversees OSHA, and Chertoff has authority over ICE.
Chao and Chertoff said they were not involved in the decision to put that sting operation into place.
"I think that was a bad idea, and I directed it not to happen again," Chertoff said, responding to a question from Kennedy.
Chao said a meeting between officials in both agencies "at the appropriate levels" has taken place, but the question of how the plan was initially hatched has yet to be answered. She said that the plan undermined the credibility of OSHA's mission to promote workplace safety.