He had a ringside seat to the 2007 push to reform the immigration system.
He saw the force of the opponents to the proposal to overhaul U.S. immigration policy – particularly, the part of the measure that called for giving undocumented immigrants a chance to legalize their status.
Now, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush, is again front and center as the nation debates how to reform a system that many on different sides of the issue agree is flawed.
But this time, Chertoff said, the opposition to reform is markedly less potent, and public opinion has tilted in favor of a sweeping overhaul.
“A wider group of people have become comfortable with the idea,” said Chertoff, who is speaking Tuesday in North Carolina about immigration and why the system must be revamped. “[They] understand that the current system is not working.”
Chertoff is a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force, which also includes former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
The group formed earlier this year to advise Congress on how to best reform the U.S. immigration system, which Rice said was “the hardest and most vexing issue.”
The group’s mission also has been to push for an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“Most people [now] understand this is the right thing to do,” Chertoff said.
Chertoff is pressing for a reform that tightens security, but that also makes it easier for people to legally enter and work in the United States.
“The draw for most of those people is employment,” he said of the undocumented population. “We need to create a robust [employment] verification system so people can have their status checked. We have to create a way to bring people in who want to work, and do it in a way that is transparent, that has secure identification, and that allows people who now are sneaking in to do a job by walking in through the front door.”
Tracking down and deporting the nation’s undocumented immigrants, Chertoff said, is unrealistic.
“It would cost maybe a trillion dollars and it’s impractical in a country of this size,” he said.
“The real issue is employment,” he said. “If we can get that under control, that will make a dent [in illegal immigration].”
Chertoff conceded that the focus in Congress on Syria, and whether to use a military strike to respond the chemical attack that killed some 1,500 Syrians with the alleged approval of the regime, complicates efforts to work on an immigration reform bill.
A bipartisan measure that passed in the Senate in late June included enhanced border security, expanded visas for high-tech and agricultural workers, and mandatory participation for employers in a federal system that would determine a prospective employee’s eligibility to work in this country. It also included a provision allowing for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria.
Those who prefer a strict approach to immigration say that legalization amounts to amnesty, and it would encourage more illegal immigration.
Others who want a tough immigration policy have said they would be willing to consider a path to legalization, but only after they are convinced that the borders have been secured.
Many advocates are concerned that immigration reform – which is now in the House of Representatives – will just be left to die by conservative Republicans who firmly oppose a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Republicans have a majority in the House.
Some observers of the immigration reform debate have expressed doubt that the House, already ambivalent over many aspects of reform proposals, will forge ahead with a vote on a bill this year.
The bigger challenge, however, Chertoff said, is the short legislative schedule for the remainder of the year and the heated debates in Congress over such issues as the debt, the Affordable Care Act and the Voting Rights Act.
“But this [immigration] is an issue that is not getting better,” he said. “From an economic standpoint and political standpoint everyone will do better the sooner we do it.”
In the spring, the bipartisan policy task force released a report that recommended that immigration reform include a path to legalization that would begin with a provisional status – something that members thought would encourage undocumented immigrants to come forward.
“This is a win-win-win [situation],” Chertoff said. “I’m a law enforcement person. If we dispel all the myths about immigration, immigration reform is a positive development. It’s better for the law enforcement community, better from an economic and humanitarian standpoint, better for people who come here for no other reason than to work. It’s a solution that benefits from all perspectives.”
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente