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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Michael Chertoff
Secretary of Homeland Security

November 30, 2005

Michael Chertoff
Good afternoon, and thanks for having me. I just returned from a trip with President Bush to Tucson and El Paso, where the President outlined a comprehensive strategy for securing our nation's borders. The President is deeply committed to securing our borders and bringing reform to our immigration system. He has told me that this is one of his highest priorities, and at his direction we have already taken several important steps. Our challenge is to further facilitate the flow of legitimate travelers and trade across our borders, while ensuring an extremely high probability of detection and interdiction of potentially dangerous people and cargo at the border. I'll be glad to explain how this Administration will accomplish these goals with you now.

Greg, from Arlington, VA writes:
President Bush has been clear on his desire for a guest worker program. Does he favor a program with a pathway to legal permanent residence? If not, what does he believe is the incentive for residents of other countries to apply for a possible guest worker program rather than cross the border illegally?

Michael Chertoff
Greg, thanks for your question. The proposed temporary worker program is not an automatic path to citizenship, nor is it an amnesty program. The President has proposed a plan to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows and into a regulated system that will allow them to work for period of 3 to 6 years and then return to their own country.

You're right that there are millions of people who choose to follow our legal immigration system each year by applying for worker visas, legal permanent residency or citizenship. We are a nation of immigrants, but we cannot allow someone who has chosen to break our immigration laws to preempt those individuals who choose a legitimate means of entering our country. Rewarding those who break the law would encourage more illegal entrants and increase pressure on the border. Ultimately, the incentive for residents of other countries to apply for a guest worker program versus attempting to illegally enter the country will be the clear understanding of the extremely high probability of their apprehension at the border and a prompt return to their home country.

Octavio, from Georgetown University, Washington, DC writes:
It is widely known that illegal immigration to the United States is a symptom of economic hardship abroad in comparison to the freedom and plentiful resources that entice immigration to the United States. How does our economic policy abroad fit into the President's comprehensive immigration reform program?

Michael Chertoff
Octavio, we recognize that working with our international partners is a crucial part of reforming our immigration system and that the economic factors attracting people to our nation is an inherent part of the conversation. In recognition that commerce and security are interrelated, the United States entered into the Security and Prosperity Partnership with Canada and Mexico earlier this year.

We continue to work with our federal counterparts and international partners to encourage economic prosperity and apply security measures that actually facilitate the flow of legitimate trade and cargo. This partnership will continue well into the future, and I am hopeful that we will find ways to form similar multilateral agreements with other international partners.

The President has proposed a Temporary Work Program that would establish a regulated channel for those individuals who are here looking for a way to support their families to step out of the shadows and participate more in the economy for a fixed period of time. By connecting willing workers with willing employers, when no American worker is willing to take the job, we can meet economic realities while reducing the pressure on our borders.

Elisa, from Hampton, Ga writes:
Will we continue to fund education and programs for children of illigal immigrants who have crossed into our borders?

Michael Chertoff
Elisa, you raise a good question. While enforcing our nation's laws is our foremost responsibility, we are confronted with the reality that many millions of individuals have already chosen to break those laws and it is not practical to remove all of them. There are humanitarian issues involved, but using our taxpayer dollars to support individuals who have broken our laws is a drain on valuable resources.

The Department of Homeland Security does not set the terms by which undocumented individuals receive access to education, medical care, and the other benefits of living in our country. In many ways, those terms are defined by individual states, and it is important that states have the ability to make decisions about how their resources are allocated.

It is my job to control the flow of immigration through our borders and to know who is in our country and for what purpose. As we enact our border and immigration plan, we will have better knowledge of who is legitimate and who is not, and enhance the nation's ability to allocate resources toward legitimate purposes.

Bill, from Arlington writes:
If illegal immigration is a seruous threat to national security, then why not deploy troops - at least National Guard units from the border states - to secure the borders with Mexico and Canada? Thanks

Michael Chertoff
Thanks, Bill. The first and best line of defense at our nation's borders is our specially trained and equipped Border Patrol, and we're increasing their resources to deal with this problem. Since 9/11, yearly spending on border security has increased 60 percent, by $2.8 billion. That money has allowed us to recruit and train 1,500 Border Patrol agents, increasing their workforce by 30 percent.

We have to remember that increasing resources at the border won't accomplish our mission alone, which is why our new appropriations bill includes a significant increase in funding for our Immigration and Customs Enforcement division. This year we'll have 250 new ICE investigators, 400 new immigration enforcement agents, 100 more deportation officers, and 2,000 more detention beds so that we can end the practice of "catch and release" and remove illegal migrants more effectively.

And to your point, we are partnering with the military and other local, state and federal agencies where appropriate. We are working with Joint Task Force North, part of the U.S. Northern Command, which routinely provides support to Border Patrol sectors along both the southern and northern borders of the United States. Since 1989, JTF North has executed thousands of missions in direct support of different law enforcement agencies, but by federal law cannot serve in a direct law enforcement capacity. Instead, soldiers employ their high technology surveillance equipment and training resources in direct support of the Border Patrol's efforts to secure the nation's borders.

Michael, from Powell, TN writes:
What is the main problem we are having with border security?

Michael Chertoff
Michael, the answer to that question is not as easy as it sounds. We share nearly 7,000 miles of borders with Canada and Mexico. Millions of tons of cargo as well as more than a million people each day cross our borders for legitimate purposes. Our goal is to allow these legal travelers and cargo in, while keeping illegal and dangerous people and cargo out. Gaining full control of our borders is a priority for the Department of Homeland Security. We recognize that illegal migration undercuts the rule of law, threatens our national security, and imposes particular public safety and economic strains on our border communities. We must gain full control of our borders to prevent illegal migration and potential security breaches.

That is why we have established the Secure Border Initiative, which is a broad, multi-year initiative looking at all aspects of the problem across the board -- deterrence, detection, apprehension, detention, and removal. SBI addresses the challenges we face with an integrated mix of increased staffing, a greater investment in detection technology and infrastructure, and enhanced coordination with our partners at the federal, state, local, and international levels.

As long as there are jobs and a better way of life in the United States, there will be economic factors driving people here. However, those millions of people living in our country without documentation or legal recognition create serious security vulnerabilities and they are themselves vulnerable to exploitation. A temporary worker program will allow foreigners who respect our laws to be welcome contributors instead of security threats, and by reducing the flow of illegal immigrants, law enforcement can focus on those who mean this county and our communities harm.

Erica, from Bellflower Ca writes:
Why has immigration between Mexico and the U.S. seem to have become an even bigger issue now than ever before in the past?

Michael Chertoff
Thanks for your question, Erica. After 9/11, our recognition of the threats of terrorism changed dramatically, and our operating environment evolved with it. It is now evident the status of our borders not only has economic and social ramifications but security implications as well. Because of this and the fact that the number of illegal migrants continues to grow, we must focus our attention on attaining control of the border.

To that end, we have dramatically increased resources at our borders, resulting in the deportation of approximately 4.8 million illegal immigrants, including over 350,000 individuals with criminal records, since 9/11. With this improved record and new understanding of our environment, we are beginning a comprehensive transformation of our border and immigration systems.

Judy, from Twentynine Palms, CA writes:
Mr. Chertoff,Thank-you for taking my question. Protecting our borders is a very important subject and in the news there has been talk of getting our military involved. Since our military personnel are already doing their job in the War on Terrorism and other conflicts around the world, and since we do not have a draft, is that seriously being considered?

And secondly, is it likely Congress will approve the money for recruitment to protect our borders?

Michael Chertoff
Judy, thanks for sending in your question. The military has supported and continues to support the Border Patrol in discrete missions every day. Federal law prohibits active and reserve military personnel from acting in a direct law enforcement capacity, but the U.S. Northern Command does conduct operations in support of our mission. It primarily provides high technology surveillance support and conducts unit military training.

Most recently, the Congress has supported recent requests to improve our capabilities to secure the nation's borders by increasing funding for interior enforcement, more detention beds (which is key), Border Patrol agents, new technology, better physical barriers, and other resources.

Stephen, from St. Petersburg, FL writes:
Mr. Secretary, Thanks for your leadership in the Department of Homeland

Security. I read President Bush's remarks on Immigration reform and applaud him for addressing this serious issue. How long will one be able to participate in the guest worker program? What will the screening process

be to ensure that these individuals are here to do honest work? Where can I find more details about the proposal outlined in Tucson,AZ on Monday? Thank you

Michael Chertoff
Stephen, thank you for your kind words. The President has outlined his plans for a temporary worker program, which includes registering for legal status for a fixed time period and then returning home. The "temporary" nature of this program is key; the President has made it clear he will not support an amnesty program. Some details will be finalized during the decision-making process, but we are suggesting a period of three to six years.

When I speak to the need for a temporary worker program, I often use the analogy of a river dam. If you are going to dam a river, it is much easier if you channel water in areas where it can be productive and take the pressure of the dam. In the immigration context, channeling foreign workers to jobs that Americans won't do and matching them with willing workers is a sensible way to ease the pressure of the immigration system and meet our country's economic needs.

David, from West Hills, Ca writes:
What kind of border security is currently in place, and what kind feasible proposals are being looked at?

Michael Chertoff
David, we have increased resources dramatically since 9/11, but there is much more work to do. The President has outlined a comprehensive, multi-year approach to transforming our border and immigration strategy.

That plan includes developing better partnerships with our international partners so that we can promptly return every illegal migrant we catch at the border through interior repatriation and expedited removal programs. We are doubling our resources for immigration enforcement beyond our borders and throughout the country, including funding for new investigators and immigration enforcement agents, more deportation officers, and more detention beds to stop the practice of "catch and release" and detain and remove illegal migrants quickly and effectively.

Of course, we are also focused on preventing people from crossing the border illegally in the first place through increased manpower and new technologies. We have increased the ranks of the Border Patrol by 30 percent since 9/11, and we will make further increases this year. We have deployed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can patrol remote and desert terrain more safely and effectively, and we are deploying vehicle barriers and infrastructure systems in appropriate environments.

Daniel, from Lakeville, CT writes:
Hi Mr. Chertoff. How does the government distinguish between the people crossing the border who are criminals and the people who just want a better life for themselves and their family?

Michael Chertoff
Thanks for your question, Daniel. The Department of Homeland Security and our partners share a number of databases to check individuals. names to ensure they don't have a criminal record. We focus expedited removal on those people with criminal backgrounds.

Through the US VISIT Program, our Customs and Border Protection agents are better able to verify the identity of a person attempting entry at our borders through enhanced technology and biometric data. This biometric and biographic data collected by US VISIT is checked against watch lists and has significantly improved our ability to determine admissibility at our ports of entry and keep known criminals and suspected terrorists from crossing our borders.

Mike, from Rocky River, OH writes:
Secretary Chertoff, Can you summarize the President's plan to protect our nation's border?

Thank you

Michael Chertoff
Mike, a brief outline of the President's plan includes promptly returning every illegal migrant we catch at the border; strengthening our resources for immigration enforcement beyond our borders and throughout the country; and preventing people from crossing the border illegally in the first place through increased manpower and new technologies. It is also crucial to relieve pressure on the border by creating a temporary worker program that creates a legal channel for honest workers and employers to support their families and our economy without violating our laws.

Elliot, from New Jersey writes:
Why can't the United States build a wall across the ENTIRE border, on the mexico side and on the canadian side? It will be so effective? Look at the Israelis This is besides the fact that for some unknown reason, border security is taken very lightly.

Michael Chertoff
Elliott, we take border security very seriously. It is not practical to believe that we can seal our border entirely, but we can create such a high likelihood of interdiction that it will create an unequivocal deterrent effect on those who wish to cross illegally.

In urban areas, an infrastructure system is effective. In September, I announced that we would waive certain legal issues to ensure expedited completion of the 14-mile Border Infrastructure System near San Diego. In more remote areas, a combination of technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance systems, lighting, or vehicle barriers can be more effective. Across the nation's border, our Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol agents are trained and equipped to ensure we enhance operational control of our nation's borders.

Michael Chertoff
It's been a pleasure taking your questions today. More information on the Secure Border Initiative may also be found at

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