Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday that Republican conservatives working to block an immigration bill risk endorsing a “silent amnesty” by insisting on deportations that are “not going to happen.”
Chertoff also leveled criticism at liberal immigrant rights advocates, saying they could prolong the anguish of immigrant families by withholding support for legislation that could make them legal.
His warnings came in an 80-minute appearance he and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez made before the USA TODAY editorial board. The two men’s appearance is a preview of a media blitz by the Bush administration as Congress prepares to go on a week-long Memorial Day recess that will give both sides in the emotional debate a chance to sway senators on a bill President Bush wants as part of his legacy.
He dismissed the argument of Republican conservatives, such as Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., who argue that illegal immigrants will leave if strict enforcement of U.S. laws makes it impossible for them to find a job.
“You’re not going to replace 12 million people who are doing the work they’re currently doing,” Chertoff said. “If they don’t leave, then you are going to give them silent amnesty. You’re either going to let them stay or you’re going to be hypocritical.”
Both he and Gutierrez warned that major changes could kill the compromise bill.
Gutierrez addressed another controversial aspect of the immigration bill, a program to expand the number of foreigners who can work temporarily in the USA. The Senate on Wednesday voted to reduce the number of guest workers from 400,000 to 200,000 a year, a move Gutierrez called “a bit concerning.”
The USA needs more foreign workers as baby boomers retire, the Commerce secretary said. His department’s figures show the population ages 25-54 growing at 0.2% a year while the workforce is growing at 1.2% a year.
“The reality is, we don’t have enough people,” said Gutierrez, adding that many of the USA’s economic competitors, such as France, Germany, Japan and China, will be facing a similar demographic shift. “The big challenge of the 21st century is: Who gets the people? Who gets the immigrants?” he said. “We don’t appreciate today that these people are coming in for free.”