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Chertoff to hand Obama immigration successes

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Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared success Wednesday on President Bush's vow to double the size of the U.S. Border Patrol and near-success on his pledge to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. The two measures leave President-elect Barack Obama in a better position to get an immigration bill passed, he said.

Mr. Chertoff said the Bush administration's recent step-up in enforcement has finally made a dent in illegal immigration, and should ease worries of those who blocked last year's immigration bill, arguing that the government needed to prove it was serious about enforcement before it could legalize current illegal aliens.

"For the first time, we've seen a real significant decrease quarter to quarter in terms of illegal immigrants coming into the country," Mr. Chertoff told reporters. "It doesn't mean the job is done, but it means for the first time we've reversed them and we're moving in the right direction."

Mr. Chertoff said the Border Patrol reached a force of 18,049 agents this week, which he said makes good on Mr. Bush's pledge to double the approximately 9,000 agents he inherited in 2001. Mr. Chertoff said Homeland Security will meet about 90 percent of its goal of fencing or vehicle barriers along 700 miles of the 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

"I think we have made a very good down payment on confidence and enforcement," he said, though he said it will be up to Mr. Obama to decide whether the federal government needs to do more enforcement before trying to achieve his campaign promise of a "comprehensive" immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.

Mr. Bush and a bipartisan coalition of senators tried last year to pass a bill that rewrote the rules for legal immigration, legalized illegal immigrants and promised better border security. But angry voters flooded Capitol Hill with calls, convincing lawmakers that the people lacked confidence that the government would secure the borders, thus sinking the bill.

Since then, Mr. Bush and Mr. Chertoff have stepped up immigration enforcement dramatically. They have granted states the right to enforce immigration laws, authorized high-profile workplace raids that have netted hundreds of illegal immigrants, and written new rules to try to prevent businesses from hiring illegal immigrants.

During this year's campaign, Mr. Obama criticized some of those enforcement efforts and promised to try again to pass a broad bill that included citizenship for illegal immigrants.

A spokesman for Mr. Obama said the president-elect remains committed to his election promises, but declined to comment on Homeland Security's progress or Mr. Chertoff's remarks.

Mary Giovagnoli, policy director for the National Immigration Forum, which wants a more generous immigration policy, said the drop in illegal immigration is more likely a result of a downturn in the economy than an effect of stepped-up enforcement.

"There's a significant number of studies that suggest that the amount of illegal immigration has been slowing gradually, really even since 1993, and it has more to do with our economy than it does U.S. government actions," she said.

She also said Mr. Obama will have to undo much of Mr. Bush's enforcement efforts over the past 18 months.

"You can't just do enforcement and expect to solve problems. What we've seen this year is that enforcement without measures of grace or means for people to attain legal status leads to a sort of cowboy attitude about enforcement - that all enforcement is great," she said.

On the other side of the argument, those pushing for stricter enforcement said more agents and more fencing might not mean much.

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said the Border Patrol has cut corners in recruitment and training in order to get 9,000 new agents into the field, and said with 30 percent of them leaving the job in their first 18 months, the agency will be hard-pressed to keep up its performance.

"George Bush unfurled the 'Mission Accomplished' banner on the deck of one of our aircraft carriers a few years ago, and that didn't turn out quite to be true," said Mr. Bonner, whose union represents more than 12,000 non-supervisory agents.

He said it will take at least 25,000 agents to properly secure the southern and northern borders, and Mr. Bush could have gotten closer to that goal if he had made it a priority earlier in his administration.

Mr. Bush came into office hoping to pass a landmark immigration bill, but was caught between competing forces in his own party. While some Republicans wanted to pass a bill in order to secure a flow of immigrant workers for the future, most Republican lawmakers said his plan to grant citizenship rights to illegal immigrants amounted to amnesty.

Democrats, meanwhile, were split, with most backing Mr. Bush while some said his legalization plan was still too harsh on illegal immigrants and skewed too heavily toward business interests rather than family unification when it came to future immigration.

Mr. Chertoff urged Congress to stick to basics of the agreement that senators reached last year.

"I think what would be a mistake is if one side tried to dramatically skew it one way or the other," he said.

He also warned Mr. Obama against splitting up the Homeland Security Department, which was created in 2003. In particular, he rejected calls to split off the Federal Emergency Management Agency, arguing that the recent terrorist attacks in India show the importance of coordinating emergency response and law enforcement.

"The reporting a couple of days ago about Mumbai was the fire department, the emergency managers and the police came on the scene and, according to the news reports, they were not well coordinated. That, in a nutshell, is the argument for keeping all this stuff consolidated. When you look at a crisis or an emergency, you cannot stovepipe your emergency response and your police response."

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