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Immigration Overhaul Seen as Key to Domestic Security

Times Staff Writer

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, portraying immigration policy as a vital weapon against terrorism, pledged Wednesday to tighten border security but also called on Congress to approve a guest worker program that would make it easier for foreign workers to enter the country legally.

“We must gain full control of our borders to prevent illegal immigration and security breaches,” Chertoff said.

But, he added, “control of the border will also require reducing the demand for illegal border migration” by channeling needed workers through a new legal system. Implicit in the guest worker program would be an increase in the number of legal immigrants.

Chertoff vowed to carry his campaign for a guest worker program as well as other changes to Capitol Hill in the weeks ahead.

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By linking the controversial subject of immigration policy to the popular goal of thwarting terrorists, Chertoff’s plan could give new impetus to President Bush’s stalled proposal for an expanded guest worker program and enhanced border security.

And, by linking the guest worker plan to calls for tougher border controls, the plan could mollify those conservative Republicans in Congress who had opposed such programs on grounds that enforcement must come first.

Revamping immigration has been a difficult issue for the Bush administration politically. It pits many business-oriented Republicans, who favor ready access to immigrant workers, against social conservatives, who express outrage at the ease with which immigrants evade U.S. laws.

Initial reaction from some congressional conservatives suggested Chertoff would not have an easy sell with Congress.

“His chances are slim to none over here,” said Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.), who founded and leads the pro-enforcement Immigration Reform Caucus in the House.

“It’s so annoying,” he said, speaking of the White House and Chertoff. “They’ve taken our rhetoric, they’re using the right words -- enforcement, security. What they’re really describing is, ‘if we make everybody legal, we’ll have solved the problem of illegal immigration in this country.’ They use the right words, they just don’t do the right thing.”

Not all Republicans are as hostile to the administration’s approach as Tancredo, but he and other critics of the administration approach have been able to block action so far.

Chertoff’s proposals for beefing up border controls and reshaping the agencies responsible for them may get a better reception.

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“Without question the most difficult problem the department has to face is immigration enforcement,” said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. “It’s of vital importance.

“The INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] bureaucracy that the new department inherited was roundly deemed dysfunctional,” he said. “The Homeland Security Act reconstituted the pieces of the INS in new ways [but] the last few years have shown that the organizational changes themselves were not enough.”

Chertoff’s pitch for new immigration laws is part of a package of proposals for streamlining and tightening up the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, which was rushed into being two years ago as part the federal government’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

With 183,000 workers pulled together from 22 federal agencies, the department has been widely regarded as a bulky bureaucracy that needs top-to-bottom reorganization.

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Chertoff, a hard-driving former prosecutor and senior Justice Department official, outlined a sweeping program of organizational and other changes in the agency’s structure, operations and priorities.

In remarks delivered to an auditorium crowded with department officials, terrorism experts and others with a stake in department policy, Chertoff identified his top priorities as preparation for catastrophic attacks, information sharing with state and local partners and transportation security, along with overhauling immigration and restructuring the department’s intelligence unit.

“Our department must drive improvement with a sense of urgency,” he said.

“Our enemy constantly changes and adapts, so we as a department must be nimble and decisive.”

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Chertoff described his proposals, which include creating positions and eliminating some bureaucratic layers, as “modest but essential course corrections” that would yield “big dividends.”

Most of the reorganizing can be accomplished administratively, he said, but some will require congressional action.

Chertoff said he was working with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “ease the path for those who wish to visit, study and conduct business in this country.”

At the same time, as part of a package of changes designed to give the department more precise information on who was entering the country, he proposed more fingerprinting of first-time visitors.

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Taken together, such steps -- along with immigration changes -- seemed designed to ease the passage of most travelers, who pose little or no threat, and enable federal agents to focus more closely on those whose backgrounds were unclear or aroused suspicion.

In some areas, Chertoff wants to create positions, including an assistant secretary for cyber and telecommunications security and another assistant secretary to head a new policy division. Shortly after Chertoff’s speech, the White House nominated Stewart A. Baker, a UCLA law school graduate and former general counsel for the National Security Agency, to be assistant secretary for policy.

Chertoff also announced the creation of a chief intelligence officer, a position he said would help fuse more than 10 offices within Homeland Security that produced intelligence.

That officer would head a beefed-up information analysis division that would report directly to the secretary and be the primary connection to other groups in the intelligence community.

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In other divisions, Chertoff proposed eliminating layers of middle management, including the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, which oversees agencies that do most of the hands-on work of dealing with the nation’s immigration challenges.

The directorate’s three components -- Border Patrol; Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for internal immigration enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection -- would report directly to the secretary or the undersecretary.

Chertoff also announced plans to:

* Turn the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which deals primarily with hurricanes and other natural disasters, into a free-standing unit. It is now merged with the directorate responsible for preparedness against terrorism.

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* Move the Federal Air Marshals organization, which has chafed against the buttoned-down management style of the former Secret Service officials who now run it, into the more flexible environs of the Transportation Security Administration.

* Create a position of a chief medical officer to better coordinate the department’s work with the agencies primarily responsible for security issues involving health, such as stocking vaccines and preparing to deal with bio-terrorist incidents.

Chertoff’s audience of Washington insiders interrupted his speech once, to applaud the news that passengers using the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport would no longer be required to stay seated for 30 minutes before arrival or after takeoff.


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