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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.

Carlos Gutierrez
U.S. Commerce Secretary

June 25, 2007

Carlos Gutierrez
I apologize for the delay, but we had a fire drill at the Commerce Department. I appreciate this opportunity to discuss what I believe is the most important domestic issue of our time: comprehensive immigration reform. Now is our best chance to solve this critical issue. Doing nothing is not an option. The system we currently have is broken, and we need to fix this problem now.

With comprehensive immigration reform we have an historic opportunity to strengthen our national security and ensure America's future economic competitiveness. I hope I can shed some light on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform by answering a few of your questions.

PAULETTE, from QUEENS NY writes:
When is the senate going back in the floor to vote again for this bill? Do you think this bill will pass.

Carlos Gutierrez
That’s a great question, Paulette. The bipartisan immigration bill that was introduced in the Senate earlier this month was removed from consideration by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after not enough Senators voted to limit debate and bring the full bill up for a vote.

This week, Senator Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell promised to bring the bill back to the Senate floor to continue debate. This allows more time for Senators from both parties to offer amendments on the legislation. Senators needed more time to consider the bill and hear from their constituents.

I’m hopeful that in the end a truly bipartisan bill will be passed by the Senate, and then we look forward to working with the House of Representatives to pass the legislation in that Chamber.

Nora, from Hope Mills, NC writes:
How can the Administration justify ramming a new set of laws that reward illegal behavior down the throats of the American people? Why are buisnesses allowed to openly flaunt existing laws by hiring illegal immigrants with impunity? How many companies have signed up for the government's voluntary employee-verification program? Why are the American people underwriting the Mexican economy? These are rhetorical questions, since I don't believe the Administration has any honest answers to them, anyway.

Carlos Gutierrez
Nora, thank you for taking the time to e-mail me your question. You’re right to raise those concerns. This issue is one that sparks tremendous emotion in many people. It is complex and can only be addressed with a multi-faceted approach that includes securing our border, creating a temporary worker program and employee verification system, and addressing the estimated 12 million people who are currently here illegally.

We are a nation that respects the rule of law, and those who break the law should not and will not be rewarded. Under the comprehensive immigration bill being considered by the Senate this week, there are stiff penalties for those who have come to our country illegally. Furthermore, they must undergo a criminal background check and prove that they are employed. We want the gardeners, housekeepers etc. who are here to work and earn a better life to come forward so we can go after the drug dealers and criminals.

As to your point about businesses, that is an important one. We know people are coming to our country because there are jobs here. We agree that we must make employers accountable for only hiring legal workers. The current penalty is just $3,000, but the new bill would raise it to $75,000. The bill also makes mandatory the Employment Eligibility Verification System, which would give employers the tools they need to ensure they are only hiring legal workers. Under the voluntary program more than 16,000 employers have already signed up.

Our immigration system is broken. This bill gives us many tools we need to fix it and ensure that our country is safe and that we have the legal workers we need to keep our economy strong. People like my family have been coming to this country for generations, in search of the American Dream. We must find a way to continue to make that pursuit possible, while ensuring that we uphold our laws and punish those who don’t.

Thomas, from Geary, Oklahoma writes:
Why do feel that all of the elements of your immigration bill must be passed at once? Why can't several bills do the same thing?

Carlos Gutierrez
You ask a very important question, Tom. We know that the best approach is a comprehensive one. Trying to do it piecemeal will not fix a broken system. We need an across the board fix that protects our security and ensures that we have the legal means to provide our economy with the workers it needs.

Immigration reform is a very multi-dimensional problem. For example, we must secure the border, but we must also have an employee verification system so that employers are not hiring anyone illegally. In order to have an employee verification system, we have to register the workers. In order to register the workers, we have to have them come out of the shadows. The whole thing ties together. Mass deportation is not viable or practical. Neither is amnesty. We believe we struck the right balance.

A comprehensive approach is the best approach and now is the time to do it. Without this approach we are going to end up with a patchwork policy of over 1,000 immigration laws across the country. As the President has said, “securing the border and upholding family values are not partisan concerns. They are important to all Americans. They must be addressed, and this bill is the best way to do it…. By coming together, we can build an immigration system worthy of this great nation.”

I know the President believes this wholeheartedly, and so do I.

Jeff, from Tupelo, MS writes:
Why is the administration trying to pass this legislation when we already have laws on the books to secure our border? We are not upholding the laws now why should the American People believe that you are going to start upholding the laws that you are ignoring now. We have an immigration problem because of the lack of back bone by this and prior Presidents to inforce our laws.

Carlos Gutierrez
Thanks Jeff. You are right, the laws on the books now were designed over many years, most before 9/11. Our security needs have changed since then and so has our economy.

The 1986 immigration law failed because it did not secure our border, it did not include tough worksite enforcement and did not provide for a temporary worker program. The proposed bill also has tougher penalties for employers who break the law and increases the maximum fine from $3,000 to $75,000. This will force employers to think twice before hiring an illegal worker. Current law is inadequate. It’s not tough enough and doesn’t give us the enforcement tools we need like the Employer Eligibility Verification System.

The comprehensive legislation we are proposing puts border security first, establishes a temporary worker program to meet the legitimate needs of our growing economy, sets up a mandatory system for verifying employment eligibility, and resolves the status of the estimated 12 million people who are here illegally. Once passed this bill will create a comprehensive system that addresses today’s challenges and can be adjusted to address future problems that may arise.

John, from Bradenton, FL writes:
Secretary Gutierrez - Why has the fence that was approved in 2006 not been started in a more speedy manner? Why is it being held up? Who should we ask to see that the fence gets started immediately? How long will it take to complete that fence? Thank you

Carlos Gutierrez
Thanks for your question, John. Fence construction has been ongoing and is progressing rapidly with a priority being given for fence construction in urban areas along the border.

With the border fence it takes time to do site surveys and environmental assessments, acquire materials, get contracts with vendors and, importantly, acquire access to the land on which to build the fence. Once this is done they can move quickly to complete the job. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is moving forward aggressively to get the fence built. New fencing is being built everyday, and by the end of the administration DHS expects to have completed a total of 370 miles of fencing. Additionally, the Administration is supporting the development of the SBInet program which will produce a "virtual fence" along our entire border that is made of sensors, cameras and other technology.

Michael, from Powell, Tn writes:
What are the plans for illegal immigrants who have broken other laws and are caught when they come to pay the fine?

Carlos Gutierrez
You've raised an important point, Michael. One of the primary benefits of the bipartisan immigration bill is that it strengthens our national security by bringing the current population of illegal immigrants out of the shadows so that we know who they are and where they live. Those with criminal records, such as a felony conviction or three misdemeanor convictions, are subject to removal proceedings. This will be a tremendous improvement for our country's security.

Alan, from Akron ,Ohio writes:
Can you please explain how increasing the labor pool with additional lower to mid level skill level people, is good for the American people?

Carlos Gutierrez
You’ve asked an important question, Alan. Native-born Americans have become increasingly educated in recent years and have in many ways moved beyond low-skilled jobs. In 1970, 36 percent of the entire labor force did not have a high school diploma. Today, just less than 10 percent of the labor force does not have a high school education, and when you look at native-born Americans specifically, that number drops to just six percent.

Clearly, Americans are becoming more and more capable of taking on higher skilled jobs. But while many Americans are moving up economically, the number of low skilled jobs that need to be filled is still growing. Of the 18.9 million jobs that will be created between 2004 and 2014, almost a third will be low-skilled jobs.

There are some jobs that Americans are simply unwilling to do…just ask farmers who have fruit rotting in their orchards. Many are unable to find the legal workers to pick produce and ultimately we’ll all pay the price at the grocery store checkout.

By creating a comprehensive immigration policy that takes into account our need for workers with all skill levels, we will help Americans continue to improve their standard of living and create new opportunities for everyone.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Secretary Gutierrez: This immigration issue is so complex and emotional that it is causing a real out cry of support and opposition. Even though both sides have made some effort to meet in the middle on many items. The words that seem's to cause the most stir to the man on the street is LEGAL AND ILLEGAL. The President made a special trip to the Hill to try and put some life support back into an issue that is in critical condition. Do you believe that we can and will beable to bring the issue back to some level of life? Thank You

Carlos Gutierrez
You have done a good job of describing the process. This is a complex, emotional issue in which every side has a stake. Every side has a point of view. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s an American issue. Members of Congress from across the political spectrum have realized that immigration reform is important, and I think there’s inevitability about this bill. That’s because we need the security, we need the jobs, and we need the stability that this bill provides.

The measure that is now being debated is the result of months of bipartisan negotiations. We have a President who wants to take on this issue now. And I believe we have the right approach because it is comprehensive, it is realistic and it is humane, in keeping with our American values.

For 400 years people have been coming to these shores seeking a better life for themselves and their families. I am an immigrant. My family fled Cuba for a safer, better life. Like others before us, we came in search of the American Dream. This new generation of immigrants is no different.

We need workers and their families to come out of the shadows because we need to know who is in our country. Doing nothing is not an option. Without this bill, we will not be as secure as we need to be. We will not have the workforce we need to grow. And too many families will continue to live in fear.

This bill moves us forward. It’s our best chance to fix a broken system. Passage of this bill is the right thing to do for our security, for our economy and for our society, and I will work tirelessly to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality.

James, from Alabama writes:
Why should we possibly believe the President will actually enforce this new law - what little enforcement there actually is there, considering his record to date?

Carlos Gutierrez
James, I can understand that some may be skeptical about our ability to enforce the new law. I know the President is committed to enforcing comprehensive immigration reform. I also know there is no issue that is more important to the President than our nation’s security.

I’d disagree that there is little enforcement out there. Our gateways are more secure than ever before and we are committing significant resources to enhancing border security. This includes a doubling of the number of border patrol agents, building hundreds of miles of fencing, and employing advanced technology, from infrared sensors to unmanned aerial vehicles.

Comprehensive immigration reform is complementary to efforts like these that are already underway. Immigration reform is one of the most important ways by which we can increase our security here at home and enhance our economic competitiveness abroad.

Carlos Gutierrez
Thank you for your great questions. I hope I have addressed some of the concerns that many people have about this complex and emotional issue.

This is not the first time we’ve tried to fix our immigration system. The lessons of the past are clear. We must address all elements together, or none will be solved. Now is the time to take action.

Our country has been strengthened by immigrants who have come here to work hard, pursue the American dream and better their families, their communities and our country. I know that our security will be strengthened with enhanced border security and documentation. I also know this effort will take leaders who put good policies above partisanship.

The President has taken a leadership position. And Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress are working towards solutions. They know that immigration reform is an issue we must address and that we can achieve a comprehensive solution that benefits all of us.

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