Bush Moves To Step Up Immigration Enforcement

Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, left, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff outlined new immigration policies yesterday.
Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, left, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff outlined new immigration policies yesterday. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007

A month after immigration restructuring failed in Congress, the Bush administration yesterday mapped a broad campaign to tighten border security and to pressure employers to fire illegal immigrant workers.

The 26 measures -- most of which continue or expand on current policies -- include raising fines for knowingly hiring illegal workers, streamlining current guest-worker programs, bolstering an electronic system employers can use to verify workers' legal status, and adding 370 miles of border fencing, 300 miles of vehicle barriers and 1,700 Border Patrol agents.

"These reforms represent steps my administration can take within the boundaries of existing law," President Bush said in a statement released shortly after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez presented the plan at a news conference. "Although the Congress has not addressed our broken immigration system by passing comprehensive reform legislation, my administration will continue to take every possible step to build upon the progress already made in strengthening our borders, enforcing our worksite laws, keeping our economy well-supplied with vital workers, and helping new Americans learn English."

Republicans offered a mixed reaction to the move -- just as they had to the failed legislation.

"It's a huge political issue, and a huge chunk of the population and a big part of the Republican Party base is demanding something be done," said GOP strategist Ed Rogers. "I hope the point is to establish credibility so maybe the next president has a better opportunity to really fix the problem."

By contrast, many Democrats, immigrant advocates and business representatives expressed skepticism and alarm.

"Sadly, the administration's proposal would make our immigration crisis worse," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the key negotiators of the compromise immigration bill that failed in the Senate. "[It] will only exacerbate the already serious problems of our immigration system by causing even more confusion about who can be hired, resulting in the unjust firings of legal workers who look foreign and driving more hardworking people into the shadows."

The impact on immigrant-dependent industries such as construction and agriculture -- whose workforce is at least two-thirds illegal -- would be "devastating," predicted Craig Regelbrugge, government relations director for the American Nursery & Landscape Association.

"There's no replacement workforce," he said. "This will give people a set of bad choices: Either they terminate their workers, or they take a deep breath and duck and hope the law doesn't catch up with them. Or, for a lot of people, they're just going to make the decision to get out of the business."

Particularly controversial are new guidelines for employers who receive a "no-match" letter from the Social Security Administration informing them that 10 or more of their employees have Social Security numbers that do not correspond with government records.

The administration issues about 130,000 no-match letters a year. Many are the result of innocent mistakes -- a worker miswrote his Social Security number on a form, for example, or failed to notify the government of her new, married name.

But a no-match often is an indicator that the worker is among the estimated 8 million illegal immigrants working in the United States.

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