Immigration drive kicks into high gear

Times Staff Writer

For weeks, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has waged a clandestine charm offensive on behalf of an immigration overhaul. He consulted with supportive lawmakers, listened to adversarial congressmen and slipped into the private offices of wary senators, the only sign of his presence the beefy security men waiting outside.

Last week, Chertoff took skeptical members of Congress on a helicopter tour of the southern U.S. border to promote the administration’s stepped-up enforcement measures.

They gave chase to illegal immigrants, and at one stop the lawmakers picked up a welder and -- with a spray of sparks -- helped build the solid-steel barrier rising along parts of the border with Mexico.


Today, Chertoff launches a higher-profile effort to win enough votes to pass a comprehensive overhaul when he testifies at the first Capitol Hill hearing on immigration legislation since Democrats took over.

Chertoff’s campaign has impressed some lawmakers who may be crucial to the fate of his effort, but it’s not clear whether they have been swayed enough to support it.

“It’s remarkable how much progress they are making,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a staunch opponent of the administration’s immigration policies who visited the border with Chertoff. But the trip “reaffirms to me that what we tried to do last year was right -- that is, delineate the need for security and require its completion first.”

The campaign comes as the White House is working hard to sell its domestic legislative priorities to Democrats. An immigration overhaul is one area where President Bush’s agenda closely matches that of the Democratic leadership.

In addition to confronting stubborn opposition, the administration is contending with a tight schedule and volatile politics. Bush has two years left to cement his legacy, but presidential campaign politics will make complicated legislation difficult to tackle.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress on the border, but we need to address all the elements of the problem,” Chertoff told reporters Tuesday. “We want to work with Congress. That’s the whole point of being in government -- to get stuff done.”

Chertoff will testify with Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who has accompanied him on Capitol Hill to promote Bush’s vision for legislation that would bolster border security and workplace enforcement, create a program to allow for guest workers, and give most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. a path to citizenship.

The House has passed an immigration enforcement bill, but it is unclear how much support there is for broader legislation.

Debate will probably start in the Senate, with Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) expected to introduce a bill next month that resembles the legislation the Senate passed last year, 62 to 36.

To pass, the bill would need the support of at least the 21 Senate Republicans who voted for it last year. It may even need a few more, because some freshman Democrats campaigned against “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

The administration is upbeat about the prospects and has started to aggressively lobby Republicans who say enforcement must come first.

The White House hopes that if GOP lawmakers see improvements in border security and workplace enforcement, they may be inclined to support a comprehensive overhaul. Raids last week on restaurants across the country, including several in Southern California, contributed to that effort. So did Chertoff’s border tour with at least 10 lawmakers.

At one stop, in San Luis, Ariz., Chertoff held a news conference at the new steel fence -- part of a 28-mile test section -- to promote border security.

Since Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in May, administration officials say they have seen a dramatic drop in the number of arrests, a sign that fewer people are trying to cross.

As of Jan. 31, arrests were down 27% from last year, with the largest drop, 62%, occurring along a part of the Arizona border where the administration has doubled the number of agents to 850, installed fencing and more than 500 ground sensors, and added five helicopters for a fleet of eight.

The Homeland Security Department also has increased the number of detention facilities to hold illegal immigrants arrested at the border.

“This is the kind of tangible indication of progress that the American people have been waiting for,” Chertoff said during the border tour.

The message was also directed at the lawmakers, a carefully chosen group that included members of the House and Senate judiciary committees, which oversee and shape immigration legislation, and long-standing foes of a comprehensive overhaul.

Chertoff and Gutierrez visited Isakson to discuss the legislation he recently introduced that would require the administration to certify that border security was complete before any new overhaul measures could begin.

Chertoff briefed Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on border security before the Arizona trip. Nelson opposed the Senate legislation last year, citing concerns that Americans could lose jobs to immigrants.

Chertoff also brought along Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the immigration subcommittee and an opponent of the administration’s immigration policy. Two House Judiciary Committee members on the trip, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), support the White House on immigration, and a third, freshman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), is new to the debate.

“It eased my worries that we weren’t having enough enforcement, because inadequate enforcement over the last few years allowed this problem to grow,” Nelson said of the Arizona visit, his first to the border. Nelson said he thought more security was needed before other changes were tackled.

King, one of the strongest backers of a 854-mile fence along the border, was unmoved. “This is not what you’d call a real good start, but at least it’s a beginning,” he said.

King said Chertoff requested a private meeting, but it “just identified how tenacious each of us might be.”

“Chertoff is a pretty good listener, but he works for the White House, and they have a different goal,” King said. “We have a working relationship and we’ll be able to talk about this policy, but my position is that until we stop bleeding at the border we can’t have a discussion about the 12 million who are here.”