The Bush administration yesterday announced reforms to better secure the nation’s borders and address rising immigration challenges.
“We’re obviously disappointed in the fact, as is the president, that Congress has not chosen to act on our comprehensive solution,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in announcing the initiative with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.
“Our hope is that the key elements of the Senate bill will see the light of day at some point,” Mr. Chertoff said. “But until Congress chooses to act, we’re going to be taking some energetic steps of our own.”
In the wake of the failed effort in Congress, a key focus of the new initiative will be additional manpower along the borders and new technologies and infrastructure by Dec. 31 — including 18,300 U.S. Border Patrol agents, 370 miles of fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border, 105 camera and radar towers and three additional unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs.)
“We will also work to ensure that 1,700 more Border Patrol agents and an additional UAV are added in 2009,” Mr. Chertoff said.
Mr. Gutierrez said that while the administration had hoped to get comprehensive reforms passed in Congress, “We will not sit idly by as the situation worsens. We will use every available tool to provide America’s farmers, ranchers and small businesses with a legal work force to stay in business and keep our economy strong.”
He said the administration will crack down on employers who rely heavily on immigrant labor, requiring them — among other things — to fire employees who use phony documents to get a job or face stiff fines.
Mr. Chertoff and Mr. Gutierrez said the administration will maintain the policy of “catch and return” for illegal aliens caught at the border; will increase funding for detention beds; and will press recalcitrant countries to work with the United States to repatriate citizens in this country illegally.
They said the Departments of State and Homeland Security also will strengthen legal efforts to keep gang members out of the country; will expand existing requirements so persons who overstay their visas can be identified; and will require all travelers to ports of entry to use passports or other secure documents.
This fall, Mr. Chertoff will begin delivering regular “state of the border reports” to keep the American people informed of the government’s progress in securing the borders.
“These reforms represent steps my administration can take within the boundaries of existing law to better secure our borders, improve work-site enforcement, streamline existing temporary worker programs, and help new immigrants assimilate into American society,” President Bush said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said securing the nation’s borders “remains a top priority” for Congress and that Democrats already had passed measures to enhance security at the borders and add at least 3,000 new Border Patrol agents.
“After today’s announcement, we hope that the administration will work with Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform,” she said.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, lauded the Bush reforms, saying the American people “want our borders secure and our laws enforced.”
“The administration should be commended for taking additional steps to achieve those goals,” Mr. Boehner said.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said Americans want to know the government is serious about enforcing border security and reducing illegal entry. He said the reforms and measures outlined by the administration “are important steps to gaining operational control over the borders and to ensure that all immigration laws are thoroughly enforced.”
Rep. Brian Bilbray, California Republican and chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus, said Congress “must now work to pass legislation that will implement a tamper-resistant and working employer-verification program that will give employers the tools they need to verify the eligibility of the workers they hire.”
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, described the reforms as “a Band-Aid that will not stop the looming crisis American agriculture will face this fall.” She said the crisis “is that crops will not be harvested.”
Mr. Chertoff said the reform effort will also include the training of hundreds of state and local law-enforcement officers to address illegal entry in their communities. He said this would include formal task forces, greater use of federal law-enforcement support centers, delegated border search-and-seizure authority, and enhanced partnerships.
He said Homeland Security would also issue a “no-match” regulation on Social Security cards to help employers ensure their workers are legal and help the government identify and crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers.
The no-match letter, he said, clarifies that employers may be held liable if they ignore it.
• Amy Fagan and Audrey Hudson contributed to this article.