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Gutierrez, Chertoff Express Optimism About Immigration Bill

The measure failed to garner enough votes June 7 to end Senate debate. For now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pulled the legislation off of the chamber’s calendar, but he has not killed the bill.

June 8, 2007
One day after the Senate halted debate on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, President Bush’s two leading surrogates for the measure—Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff—expressed optimism that it would be revived and approved.

At a Friday, June 8, media briefing at the Commerce Department, Chertoff also addressed concerns that the human resources community has outlined about the employment verification provisions of the bill. He said the legislation would improve current law by giving his department access to Social Security databases.

The bill failed to garner enough votes June 7 to end Senate debate. For now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pulled the measure off of the Senate calendar, but he has not killed the bill.

In its current form, it is drawing opposition from a group of HR organizations, led by the Society for Human Resource Management and the HR Policy Association, that says the government’s trial electronic verification system, known as Basic Pilot, is flawed.

“Reliance on the current Basic Pilot—as mandated in the Senate immigration bill—is destined to fail and will not be support by employers,” the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce wrote in a June 4 letter to senators.

U.S. employers within 18 months of congressional approval of immigration reform. That requirement is part of the Senate bill. Such improvements would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another major criticism of Basic Pilot is that it cannot detect identity fraud. In December, U.S. officials raided six Swift & Co. meat processing plants, arresting more than 1,200 employees on charges of illegal immigration.

Swift uses Basic Pilot but that did not prevent the company from employing ineligible workers who stole legitimate American identities. Swift says the raid cost it $30 million.

Chertoff said the Senate bill gives his agency the ability to fight the kind of identity fraud that roiled Swift. Specifically, it allows DHS to access Social Security databases to determine whether the same number is being used by multiple workers.

“We [would] have the ability to take the next step, which is to be able to verify that the identity is real,” Chertoff said. “That’s an example of the kind of tool we can’t currently use by law, and we to change it. That’s part of this bill.”

He also asserted that Basic Pilot has the wherewithal to handle all U.S. employers.

“It can be ramped up because it’s underutilized,” he said.

But the HR organization is advocating that employers not be limited to Basic Pilot for verification. One option is for companies to use an overhauled Basic Pilot that operates from cleaned-up government databases.

The other choice would be an alternative electronic system based on advanced technology, additional background checks and the voluntary use of biometric information stored with government-certified vendors.

Chertoff and Gutierrez stressed that the Senate bill represents a substantial advance in verification policy because it limits the number of identification documents that can be used and mandates the development of tamper-proof Social Security cards.

Both stressed that reforming immigration policy is urgent.

“You always [have to] ask yourself, what’s the alternative?” Chertoff said. “The alternative is going to highly inconsistent local and state laws that will attempt to address this problem because we have not addressed it nationally.”

But resistance in Congress is high. Conservative Republicans have decried provisions of the Senate bill that offer a path to legalization—albeit it one laden with fines and other requirements—and members of both parties have criticized guest worker and family reunification aspects.

“The amnesty bill’s defeat is a victory for American workers, legal immigrants and the rule of law,” Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas and the highest ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “The American people want secure borders, not amnesty.”

Gutierrez countered that the bill does not endorse amnesty.

“This is not an unconditional pardon,” he said. “This is a very hard-earned path.”

Reid and other Democrats claimed that Republican senators were trying to choke the Senate bill to death with amendments over the course of that chamber’s two-week debate.

In a statement June 8, Reid said that he would bring the bill back to the Senate floor “as soon as enough Republicans are ready to join us in moving forward on a bill to fix our broken immigration system.”

Gutierrez and Chertoff are in the midst of a fierce lobbying campaign to bring more senators on board and to reach out to business, church and Hispanic groups to build momentum.

“The president is 100 percent behind this,” Gutierrez said. “We have bipartisan support and we are as encouraged as ever. We are going full speed ahead to try to get the bill back on the floor.”

He argued that the bill is vital for national security and economic security.

“We cannot grow the economy without immigrants,” Gutierrez said, citing employment demands in many sectors coupled with a declining U.S. population. “It is a demographic reality; it is a mathematical reality.”

Chertoff said the political reality on Capitol Hill is that the Senate is close to approving an immigration bill.

“If it takes a couple more days, so be it,” he said. “As time has passed, there’s a greater receptivity to it. This is crunch time in the debate.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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