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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
June 25, 2007

Press Briefing on Comprehensive Immigration Reform by Joel Kaplan, Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy
Via Teleconference

      In Focus: Immigration

4:08 P.M. EDT

MR. STANZEL: I appreciate everyone's patience, and thank you for joining us today. I'm joined here by Joel Kaplan, who is Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy at the White House, and has been very involved in the immigration effort. And he'll start off with some opening thoughts, but we really want to provide this opportunity to you to get the perspective of the White House as the Senate brings comprehensive immigration reform back up for consideration this week.

So with that, I'll turn it over to Joel. And I should make clear, this is a pen and pad briefing, not for broadcast, but it is on the record. Thank you.

MR. KAPLAN: Thanks, Scott. And thanks, everybody, for joining us.

Just want to say at the outset that the President is pleased that the leaders from both parties were able to come to a compromise on a process to bring immigration reform back to the Senate floor. After the Majority Leader brought the bill down a couple of weeks ago, the administration redoubled its efforts, and working with bipartisan group of senators to determine an orderly and fair process in which both important Republican and Democratic amendments would have an opportunity to be considered.

As the Senate turns to the bill this week, the administration will continue to work with the bipartisan group of senators on the bill to see this process through, until Congress sends a workable bill to the President that does the following things:

First and foremost, it puts border security first; it gives employers the tools they need to verify the status of the workers that they hire; it provides a legal and orderly way to match willing foreign workers to jobs Americans aren't filling and which our economy demands -- because until you remove the magnet for illegal immigration, you will never truly get control of the borders; it brings the current undocumented workers here out of the shadows and does so without amnesty; and it helps to assimilate both those undocumented workers and, importantly, all newly arrived immigrants into our society in a way that this country has done so successfully over its history.

In bringing the bill back to the floor I think it's important to recognize that the senators understood very well the failures of the 1986 reform bill that have caused, I think, legitimate skepticism among the public, and among members of Congress, as well, about the government's commitment -- the federal government's commitment to keeping its promises on enforcement. That's why the President a week or so ago welcomed a new provision in the bill that would provide $4.4 billion in immediate additional funding for the border security and enforcement triggers in the bill, and other enforcement mechanisms in the bill, which we think of as a direct deposit for border security and work site enforcement.

This funding will bypass the lengthy and often very contentious and political appropriations process and will instead put the money up front, to be paid out of the general fund. That funding will then be reimbursed over time by penalties collected from those who are in the U.S. illegally and come out of the shadows to apply for a Z visa.

There are other very critical provisions in the bill which reflect an understanding of the failures of 1986, and a commitment not to repeat those failures. Those include the presence in the bill of an effective temporary worker program. As I mentioned earlier, one of the big failures of 1986 was that it did not provide for a legal and orderly way for employers to fill jobs in this country that Americans weren't doing. And also, very importantly, it will -- this bill will provide, in a way that 1986 didn't, an employer verification system so that employers can quickly and reliably determine the identity of people who are applying for jobs.

You've got to make it easy for employers to verify and authenticate the identity of the people who they're hiring if you want them to abide by the law. And then, once you've provided, as this bill does, a reliable and effective employer verification system, you need to toughen up the sanctions so that hiring illegal aliens becomes a liability on the balance sheet, not an asset, as it is today. And this bill does that in spades.

Finally, I'll just close by taking the opportunity to note that immigration reform is too important to our national security and to our economic competitiveness and growth in this country to let this opportunity pass. So we're looking forward to helping out as we can, as the debate returns to the Senate floor this week. And with that I will shut up and take some questions.

Q Hi, Mr. Kaplan. Senator John Cornyn, just about 40 minutes ago, was on the Senate floor, and he was blasting a provision in the bill that he said would allow 24 hours for criminal background checks. And he said this could allow criminals and terrorists into our country, because there's no way -- it's an unrealistic goal to do that. And I wanted to get your response to that. His words were pretty strong about it.

MR. KAPLAN: Yes, thanks for the question. What Senator Cornyn is referring to is a provision the bill which, frankly, we think there's been a fair amount of misunderstanding and mythology about. There is a provision -- what he's talking about is a provision that said that when the undocumented workers come in out of the shadows to register for a probationary card, that DHS should give the card to them in 24 hours.

Now, two things to note about that. The first is, the background check that's required has, I think, five layers. Four of the layers of that background check are almost invariably completed within 24 hours. They're either immediate -- they're sort of, you know, they're online and they're immediate hits to an online database in which they'll get the verification right away -- or they happen within 24 hours.

The fifth of the five layers of the background check does sometimes take longer. But here's what's important to recognize. Those background checks continue after the probationary card is granted, and if the background check comes up negative, that person is not eligible for a Z visa and is eligible to be deported.

So it's not as though the person's getting any kind of a free pass. In fact, we're much better off than we are today, where that person exists out in society, we have no idea who they are, we have no idea where they are, we don't have their fingerprints, we don't have anything to identify them. This provision requires them to come in, make themselves known to the government. So I think there's been some mythology about that provision.

That said, because that mythology exists and there are people concerned about it, there's an amendment that will be considered this week that removes the reference to the 24-hour -- and I think -- my understanding is that's expected to pass. So that, I think, unjustified concern will be taken off the table completely.

But it's a good example, I think, of some of the misunderstanding that has kind of continued about this bill, and why debate is important and discussion's important. And I think that when senators have a chance to see the bill in its entirety, particularly after it's been amended, they'll agree it's worthy of their support.

Q Thank you.

Q Hey, Joel.

MR. KAPLAN: Hey, Mark.

Q What can you tell us about tomorrow's immigration event? Who exactly will the President be briefing about immigration and what will he have to say that's new, if anything?

MR. KAPLAN: Thanks, Mark. I think it will be a broad array of individuals and groups who are interested in the issue and have been generally supportive, and have an interest in the bill passing the Senate and moving on to the House. I don't know that he'll -- I think you'll hear another indication of the President's commitment to getting this bill done, and reiteration of its importance to the country. I think he'll talk a little bit, I suspect, about the additional money that's been provided in this bill, the importance to enforcement, and the importance of moving the bill forward. I think it will be similar in some respects -- in a lot of respects to the radio address this weekend.

Q And what can you tell us about getting GOP leaders in the Senate on board? The latest from both Mitch McConnell and Trent Lott say they still need persuading.

MR. KAPLAN: Well, this week I expect you'll see continued efforts at persuasion. That's what this debate is going to be about. The leadership, the Republican leadership has been very helpful in bringing this process forward and ensuring a fair and orderly opportunity for amendments to be considered. We're very grateful to them for that. And Secretaries Chertoff and Gutierrez you'll continue to see have a lease on the Hill; they've basically been tenants up there for the last two or three months, and I think you'll continue to see them in residence up there. And we'll just keep working it.

Q Thanks very much.

Q Hi, Joel, thanks for doing this. It's just a follow-up on what Mark just asked. Some of the conservative opponents of the bill up here in the Senate just said that they think momentum is building against this bill; that votes are eroding for it, and that the 60 votes probably won't be there to get cloture tomorrow, to even get back onto the bill. I just wanted to get your take on that? And if you could flesh out at all what you're doing -- who, in particular, you're talking to, to try to make sure that there is enough Republican support there to try to get back on the bill.

MR. KAPLAN: We're optimistic that the 60 votes will be there tomorrow. We'll see soon enough, but our intelligence suggests that there will be the votes there to move on to the bill and to begin considering amendments. We'll take our guidance from the leadership as to who they think it would be worthwhile for Secretaries Chertoff or Gutierrez, or others in the administration to talk to as we've been doing. And we'll see in the vote tomorrow.

But as I say, our intelligence is that the votes will be there, because enough members of the Senate appreciate that the status quo is unacceptable, and that without immigration reform they're not going to get the tough new border security and work site enforcement measures that we need to get control of the border, and we won't be able to make the changes to our immigration system necessary for our economy to continue to be competitive.

So we think the argument is persuasive. The members have had time to consider it, they'll have more time to debate it; but we're optimistic that the 60 votes that we need will be there.

Q And you've called this a fair and orderly process for amendments. The critics are calling it a rigged process that cuts them off from any chance of changing the bill. How do you respond to that?

MR. KAPLAN: Well, I defer to the Majority Leader and the Republican Leader, who engaged in protracted discussions in figuring out exactly what process was due. Obviously, the Republican members of the Senate, two weeks or so ago when the Majority Leader brought the -- filed cloture last time, did not think they had received sufficient process, and as a result, the votes weren't there.

I think we'll see, with the vote tomorrow, that they now conclude they have had sufficient consideration, and as a result, the 60 votes that weren't there before will be there tomorrow. That's what our intelligence tells us, and we're optimistic that that will be the case. And I think that will tell us that at least 60 members of the Senate believe that the process has been fair.

Q Hey, Joel.

MR. KAPLAN: Hey, Michael.

Q I'm curious, is the President satisfied that the business community and others in favor of comprehensive reform have done all they can to make the case?

MR. KAPLAN: I think -- well, let's put it this way, members -- some members of the business community have been very active in support; other members of the business community have been focused on making improvements to the bill to ensure that it would get their support. I think the test will come this week, as we go to the key votes in the Senate, and we're very hopeful that the business community will appreciate the importance of this bill to ensuring they have a legal work force, that they're able to verify who their employees are, and yet, at the same time that our immigration system is able to provide them with the work force that they need to continue growing and thriving as they have been.

Look, this is a complicated bill. It's taken some time for people to understand what's in there. Obviously, it's a compromise and it's in the nature of compromise that everyone doesn't get everything they want. But we think that the business community, like others who are interested in immigration reform, will conclude that they get enough of what they want to make this a bill that's worth supporting and, in fact, is too important to let pass. And I think that's the conclusion the business community has come to.

Q Is the President going to, himself, make calls to senators this week? Or has he started that already?

MR. KAPLAN: He's been doing that. And I expect that if it proves necessary, he will be happy to do it again.

Q And one last thing, is this being viewed by the White House as kind of a last shot for this bill? If you fail this week, do you think that this issue is done for the rest of the President's tenure?

MR. KAPLAN: We do not expect to fail this week, and so have no interest in engaging in such hypotheticals.

Q I thought you might say that. (Laughter.)

MR. KAPLAN: Good try. (Laughter.)

Q Secretary Chertoff has had a lively exchange of letters with some senators regarding the Grassley-Baucus-Obama amendment on employment verification. If this amendment were to go through, how much of a problem is that for you all, and would you all consider pulling your support from the legislation?

MR. KAPLAN: Again, I don't want to get into hypotheticals, because we think that Secretary Chertoff and also the Senate sponsors of the underlying text will be successful in convincing their colleagues not to support the amendment -- the Grassley-Baucus-Obama amendment that you referred to.

Look, as I mentioned at the outset, a reliable and effective employer verification system is critical to the success of this effort. It's one of the key lessons that we've learned after 1986, and as Secretary Chertoff worked with the senators in coming up with the bipartisan compromise bill, he put a very high premium on workability, and having a system that he could look them in the eye and say, yes, we can implement this, yes it will be effective, and yes, it will allow us to ensure that we don't recreate this problem in the future. And it's critically important to him and the President, and it's critically important to the senators who support the bill that we be able to say that at the end of the day.

As evidenced by the letters that Secretary Chertoff exchanged with the senators -- Grassley, Baucus, and Obama -- he obviously feels very strongly that this provision would undermine the effective employer verification system. And that's a big concern. So we'll be advising senators to vote against it.

Q The talk coming from the business community and other lobbyists close to this is that this actually stands a fairly decent chance of passing. So do you all have a backup plan on this?

MR. KAPLAN: As I answered to Michael Fletcher in the previous question, we're expecting to prevail, so we're not making backup plans. Look, we've got our work cut out for us, as do the senators who support the bill, in making sure that we make the case, and we explain why this provision is so central to the effectiveness of the overall comprehensive effort. We're going to be making that case. Secretary Chertoff, in particular, will be making that case, along with Senator Kyl and other senators who support the underlying text and recognize the importance of the employer verification system. And our hope is that we'll be able to make that case persuasively, so that we don't face the situation you spelled out.

Q Has the White House taken a position on Senator Hutchison's amendment that would require all the -- all adults in the 12 million to go back home within two years to get a permanent Z visa?

MR. KAPLAN: No, we haven't taken a position on that amendment, or most of the other ones, for that matter. Look, the important thing is making sure that the bill deals with the 12 million, as the President has said multiple times, without amnesty and without animosity. As you know, there is a touchback provision, or home application, as it's sometimes referred to, in the underlying text. That requirement kicks in sort of at the back end, as the undocumented workers choose to apply for a green card after eight years or so. I think the amendment you mentioned would sort of accelerate that provision to earlier in the process as a precondition for getting a Z visa.

Our concern is we make sure that the bill ultimately strikes that balance of ensuring that there is a penalty for the violation of law, but that it's not so punitive as to be unduly onerous. And we'll work with the Congress to make sure that what comes out in the final product strikes that balance appropriately, and we'll know that once the bill comes off the floor this week.

Q First, I have a doubt -- are you expecting cloture to be voted on tomorrow? I was told it might be voted on Wednesday, and tomorrow would just be a motion to proceed, and they would start with at least eight amendments. And then the question is, do you have an idea of where you are at this moment on votes? Are you over the 60, are you close to the 60, as you start the debate?

MR. KAPLAN: I have learned over time that it is best for me to remain a policy wonk and not a vote counter in the Congress. So I'm going to take a pass on exactly where the votes are. Like I said to an earlier question, I think -- my intelligence is that we're optimistic that we'll have the 60 votes. But as to exactly how many and where things stand at any given moment, I'm not going to hazard a guess on.

On your process question, my understanding is the same as yours. Tomorrow morning they're going to vote on the motion to proceed, which is a 60-vote threshold, as well, and then they'll move right to the amendments on the bill. They'll also file cloture on the bill, but it won't ripen, I think, for 48 hours, so you won't actually have the final cloture vote until, I guess, probably Thursday, assuming the Majority Leader sticks to that calendar. So I think you had it about right.

Q Thank you.

Q Hi. I wanted to ask you about another one of the amendments, and that is the one that John Ensign plans to offer on -- it's aimed at keeping people who work here illegally from collecting Social Security, or getting credit for -- Social Security credit for time they worked illegally. Is the administration going to take a position on that?

MR. KAPLAN: Again, I'm going to give you the similar answer to the one I gave to the gentleman from Texas, asking about Senator Hutchison's amendment. We want to make sure the bill strikes the right balance between -- strikes the right balance in treating the 12 million undocumented workers with respect and without animosity, but also without amnesty. And one of the issues that arises is, how do you treat the contributions that those undocumented workers have made into the Social Security system during their period of illegality.

The underlying bill takes one approach, which is pretty tough, I think, in generally denying benefits -- excuse me -- denying credit to the illegal workers for their contributions to Social Security. The Ensign amendment, as I understand it, would tighten that up a little bit further, and we'll work with the members of the Senate to see whether they think that that's a -- whether the underlying text or the Ensign amendment strikes the right balance.

Q You're not going to be urging senators to vote one way or the other on that amendment, though?

MR. KAPLAN: Not presently.

Q And what about other amendments, generally? Are there any amendments out there that the administration definitely wants to see added to the bill? And are there any besides the one you mentioned, the Grassley-Baucus-Obama amendment, that you will be actively urging senators not to support?

MR. KAPLAN: Right now, in terms of actively urging senators not to support, I think we've drawn the line at the Grassley amendment -- Grassley-Baucus-Obama amendment, largely because there's been this exchange of letters and because it is considered so critical to the effective implementation of the bill.

As for ones we're encouraging, Senator Graham I think will have an amendment that deals with some enforcement provisions, some additional enhancements to the enforcement provisions in the bill, and I think we're likely to urge support of that one. Other than that, I think we'll probably take our lead from the bipartisan group of senators who have been spearheading the bill through the Congress -- through the Senate.

Q A couple questions. Following up on Fletcher's question earlier about engagement -- the White House engagement in this, can you flesh out a little bit more what the President has been doing on a day-to-day basis, and how you determine -- or how he determines when to personally get involved, versus let things play out on the Hill with the Cabinet Secretaries?

MR. KAPLAN: Sure, Ben. I mean, first of all, the President made a number of calls last week, and then -- and, obviously, he does a lot of public appearances, as he did his radio address, which is the fourth or fifth radio address he's done on it, and is going to do another session tomorrow with some outside groups, as we talked about. So he does a combination of weighing in individually where it's appropriate and urging public support, and laying out the framework for debate and for the consideration of the bill.

Just as a general matter, we take our signals from the Office of Legislative Affairs, Candi Wolff's shop, which keeps the President abreast of developments on the Hill. She, in turn, works very closely with her contacts on the Hill and particularly in leadership, and she hollers when she wants the President's assistance in speaking to a particular member of Congress. And I expect she'll holler a few more times before all is said and done.

Q Okay. And one other, please. When the original agreement was reached last month, Tony Snow and others in the White House essentially framed the matter as one of education, that the more members of Congress understood the bill and had a chance to digest it, the better the White House's chances of getting their support.

Are you still asserting that that's the case, that this is a matter of education that some members still need to learn the details? Or is that no longer an argument in the White House?

MR. KAPLAN: You know, it's a good question, Ben. I think at this point, we're now -- there's been a lot of discussion about the bill. There are, by the way, still some misconceptions about what the bill does, but that's, I think, only natural in a bill this comprehensive and complex.

But by and large, I think, at this point, the point -- what the President and his Cabinet Secretaries and others are doing is explaining why this bill is necessary and reinforcing the message as to why the status quo is unacceptable, and how the pieces of this legislation fit together to provide a solution to the unacceptable circumstance we face today on our border and within the interior of the country.

So I think we're in the phase now, as they head into the final tally on the votes, of making the case and explaining why we think the status quo is unacceptable -- which, by the way, I think you see signs every day that the status quo is unacceptable; you see states and localities acting on their own accord, to step in with various types of regulations on immigration because they don't see the federal government taking charge of this situation.

There are signs across the board that we need to fix the problem we have with our borders and with our immigration system. And our job now is to make the case and convince 60 members of the United States Senate to vote to let the bill go forward. And I think we'll be successful in that.

Q Okay, thanks.

MR. KAPLAN: Sure thing.

Q Listen, I have one clarification question about this 24-hour thing that Senator Cornyn was talking about. Does your statement mean the White House supports taking the 24-hour requirement out of this?

MR. KAPLAN: I believe there will be an amendment -- I mentioned, but I don't know if you were on, I mentioned a Graham amendment.

Q I did, I heard you say that. But I just want to clarify, you support that, taking the 24-hour requirement out?

MR. KAPLAN: Yes, we don't think the 24-hour requirement would have had the negative effects that had been ascribed to it, but we recognize it's been something of concern. And, more importantly, I think Senator Graham recognizes that it's been a cause of concern, and so he's included it, at least as I understand it, he's included it in his sort of omnibus enforcement amendment, and we're supportive of that.

Q Okay, that will do it, thanks.

MR. STANZEL: Thank you all. That's all the time that we have today. I would thank you all for joining, and also call your attention to a fact sheet that we put out about an hour ago that talked about the difference between enforcing current law and then what would be in effect if the bipartisan immigration reform bill is passed, in terms of enforcement. So that's a useful side-by-side comparison that you can use when comparing how current law is different than the present considered legislation.

Again, thank you all for joining us, and appreciate your time.

END 4:39 P.M. EDT

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