The Bush administration reached a long-awaited deal on immigration reform with a bipartisan group of senators Thursday. Prospects for the deal to become law are unclear, given the fraught politics of immigration—especially among conservatives. But in theory the deal promises to give legal status to some 12 million illegal immigrants, as well as strengthening border security and tightening controls on employers. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff spoke to NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe about the deal and where it goes from here. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: It seems that the toughest sales job will be to your fellow Republicans. What will you tell them?
Michael Chertoff: Let me remind you of the number of people standing up there in the Senate. There were more Republicans than Democrats, including a number who were tough on the issue of immigration. This is a package that deals with all elements of the problem. It requires as a trigger for moving forward with the temporary worker program that you have to have 18,000 Border Patrol in place and the 370 miles of fence and the employer-verification program. You require every employer to have that employer verification as a basis for hiring people, and you create tamperproof documents for people coming in with a temporary visa. That eliminates a major gap we have had in the past, which is employers gaming the system. Then you require employees who are here to pay a fine and have a background check. There's a penalty. That's why it's not amnesty. And they don't jump the line to get a green card.
I understand that some people think it's not tough enough. Maybe they want people thrown in jail for 10 years or they want people executed. But the reality now is that we aren't solving the problem. We're kicking it down the road. Part of what we are saying to conservatives is that we're fixing the problem of 20 or 30 years of neglect. By moving from family immigration to a marriage-based system, that focuses on national needs rather than family connections, a lot of conservatives like that because it's about national interests being put first.
How did you break the logjam to get this deal done?
It wasn't a logjam. This was people over time, including a bipartisan group of senators, sitting down and talking about all the elements of immigration. It started out as people saying let's fix illegal immigration. But you can't fix illegal immigration unless you fix immigration in general ... I'm sure individual senators are unhappy with certain elements. But at the end of the day everybody realized that this is a solution that fixes the problem for good.
Are you going to make a homeland-security case to try to win people over if things get tough?
It's not just in case things get tough. Right now I have my Border Patrol and Immigration agents chasing people who are trying to become housekeepers and gardeners. I don't think that's the best use of their time. I think they ought to be focused on drug dealers, violent people and terrorists. But as long as we're trying to hunt 12 million illegal workers, they don't have the time to hunt for terrorists and drug dealers. If you put homeland security first, you want the economic migrants, who are not a threat to the country, to be regulated, and focus on the people who we are more worried about.
What was the president's reaction to the deal?
[Commerce] Secretary [Carlos] Gutierrez and I called him. He was very happy and congratulated members of the Senate who worked on this. This was an issue that he first talked about several years ago. He's committed to getting the job done and he's been fully involved every step of the way. He said we're on the verge of a historic moment.
Is this a complete package or is there room for more compromise? If you pull one string, will the whole thing fall apart?
It's a complete package. I'm not telling you there's not room for marginal changes, but this was really a grand bargain. I think everybody involved in this, at all ends of the spectrum, think it's the right balance. It's the only game in town. There isn't going to be a significant alternative piece of legislation. This is the best solution that the people who worked on this could come up with. The only alternative to this is nothing.