EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Michael Chertoff knows the importance of keeping U.S.-Mexico trade going in difficult times. As secretary of Homeland Security for the George W. Bush administration from 2005-2009, his task included balancing international commerce while upgrading border security less than four years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Today, as the nation grapples with whether it’s experiencing an immigration crisis or not, Chertoff urges Americans not to lose sight of the need for the $1 billion to $2 billion in goods that come across the border from Mexico every day to move without delays.
“We do need to have that open trade. At the same time, citizens of the U.S. have a right to expect that the decision about who comes to live in America will be made by Americans and not unilaterally decided they want to move here,” he said. “At the same time, we need to recognize that immigrants make major contributions to our country. Our agricultural system, for example, would not function without immigrants. … Likewise, we have people fleeing war or corruption or climate change issues now and under our policies and laws, they have right to asylum, and we have to adjudicate that fairly quickly.”
Chertoff was the featured guest at Tuesday’s Distinguished Speakers Series forum sponsored by the Borderplex Alliance. Past guests have included U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau and former Mexican Ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan.
Chertoff’s tenure as Homeland Security secretary focused heavily on immigration. On the one hand, he oversaw the construction of hundreds of miles of border fence and pursued waivers to environmental laws. On the other hand, he worked on Bush’s input to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which would’ve legalized millions of undocumented immigrants but failed.
Chertoff on Tuesday said the Democrats’ current immigration reform bill isn’t likely to clear the Senate.
“I’m not wildly optimistic … as long as the Senate has the filibuster. I don’t know you’re going to get 10 Republicans for this. However, there might be a chance at incremental reform. I would imagine there’s a decent chance to get ‘Dreamers’ regularized. You have to be very heartless to have someone who came at age 2 through no fault of their own and who is now 30 and working in America sent back to a country they don’t know.”
The House on March 18 approved both the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. One provides a path for citizenship for immigrants brought to the U.S. before age 16 – called “Dreamers” — and the other grants temporary status with an option to permanent residency to farm workers.
The “Dreamers” “have grown up here, they’re rooted here. And even if their parents came without authorization, fairness and humanity suggests we need to regularize people who came as children and are now Americans in every respect,” Chertoff said. “It’s not realistic to think we’re somehow going to eject them. They need to be regularized, pay a fine, make sure they’re square with other legal issues, then become residents and citizens.”
The former Homeland Security secretary called for a holistic approach to solving the current migrant surge, rather than assigning blame to Republican or Democratic administration. That includes bringing to the table leaders from the U.S., Mexico and Northern Triangle countries to address what’s making people flee their countries.
He also doesn’t see border travel restrictions being lifted any time soon. “I think the international border are going to remain under pressure from (the COVID-19) virus for some time. (Restrictions) may wax and wane depending on infection rates in Mexico and the United States, they may loosen to allow more travel or tighten up,” he said. “To be candid, I would assume for the rest of the year you have to check … on the degree of clamp down on border travel.”