George W. Bush photo

Press Briefing on Immigration Reform

May 17, 2007

Room 450

Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building


Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff

Secretary of Commerce Gutierrez

Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Joel Kaplan

4:15 P.M. EDT

MR. SNOW: We are a little bit pressed for time. We've got about a half an hour. Secretaries Chertoff and Gutierrez have to appear at Pebble Beach to start doing some media appearances. So without further ado, we'll get a quick brief first from Secretary Chertoff, then a few words from Secretary Gutierrez. Joel Kaplan also here to answer questions about the negotiation, and when the proper time comes, I will wrap it up. We're also in the process of producing fact sheets, which we hope we will have available by the end of the briefing -- if not, we will get them to you in very short order.

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Thanks, Tony. Let me really briefly run through the outline of the bill. The bill has not yet been introduced: I can't take you section by section through it. And then I have one announcement which I do think is important to make, which will be news, maybe, and is important to get out.

As you know, the bill starts with triggers on border enforcement: complete 370 miles of fence; get the 18,000 Border Patrol recruited and in training; continue to maintain catch and detain, as opposed to catch and release; and get an electronic verification system up that is operational and can start to provide to the employers an ability to verify who is an American citizen: tough interior enforcement with penalties; a requirement that you have secure identification for temporary workers and people who are going to be allowed to work here who were previously undocumented; and a system that allows you to verify that all of your people who come in to work are, in fact, American citizens by checking against databases on vital statistics.

Then we have to talk about how we deal with the economic needs that have been feeding illegal migration. That is a temporary worker program which allows people to come in and work either seasonally or on a temporary basis, up to two years, go back for a year, then they can come back and apply to work two years again, go back for a year, and apply to work two years again. But temporary means temporary. It's not meant to be kind of an under-the-table path to a green card.

We do have a green card system, but that is a separate system. And part of what all of this is about, it has got to be above board and transparent. We're not doing things under the table.

In terms of the green card system, we're talking about reconfiguring that system going forward. We begin with a proposition that two-thirds of our current green cards are based on family connections, including extended family connections, your adult children, their spouses, your adult siblings, their spouses. And, frankly, that promise of family reunification under the existing law has been pretty much a false promise, because even those who are eligible for those green cards far outweigh the number of green cards that are available, so you wind up waiting decades before that green card comes in.

We're trying to get this system on an honest footing, but also, and as important, if not more important, recalibrate it going forward, so that it is based on national needs -- what we need in terms of educating people, employment skills, other kinds of experience that are good for America on the merits, and reduce the extent to which family connections in and of themselves get you a green card. That would move us more in the direction of where the rest of the West is and the rest of the world is, in terms of how they allocate their immigration system.

So how do we square that goal with the need to be fair to those who have waited on line in the existing system, the need, ultimately, to find a fair way, but a realistic way to deal with the undocumented workers who are here? We do it first by clearing the family backlog, the people with the extended preferences currently on line who have applied as of March 2005. That cutoff was picked because that was the date the original Kennedy-McCain bill was dropped. Those people, assuming they otherwise qualify and don't have criminal records, can get their green cards within eight years. And we're going to increase the number of green cards to let that happen.

That is basic fairness. If you waited on line, we're not going to change the rules of the game on you; we're going to let you get in under the rules of the game as they then existed. And it's actually going to be a benefit for those who have been waiting to reunify with their families because what was 20 or 30 years in some instances will be eight years or less.

But once we've cleared that backlog, the system is going to change going forward. Nuclear families, meaning your spouse and your minor children, will still be able to come in, uncapped, if you are a U.S. citizen -- or capped, but with a reasonable cap if you are a legal permanent resident. But extended family connections will no longer be, in and of themselves, a basis for a preference.

Rather, most of the green cards that will exist after we clear the backlog -- and there will be about 400,000 -- most -- those will be based on a merit system, with most weight going to education, employment, experience in the U.S. -- if you've been a temporary worker, that's going to count for a lot. If you're in a field where there is a need, like the health care field, that's going to give you points. And family will come in -- can be kind of a tie-breaker, but it's not going to be a basis to overwhelm the other merit-based system.

So that once we've cleared the backlog of people who have been playing under the old system, the new system will be one that looks to the merits and what you bring to the table in terms of the national interest of the United States, with family as a component, but not as the overwhelming component.

Also, once we clear the backlog we will be in a position to start to talk about how we address this issue of undocumented workers who are in the country, and their opportunity to get a green card. Again, the plan is tough, but it's fair and it's realistic. When the law is enacted, we will begin the process of enrolling people who are here illegally on a probationary basis. Now, if you're here illegally and you've committed a crime, you're out. If you're here illegally and you've committed -- and you're a gang member, you're out. If you're here illegally and you're a terrorist, you're out.

But assuming your only violation is a status violation, you entered illegally, you can get a probationary visa to continue to work while we complete the process of your background check, while we hit the triggers. Once the triggers are hit, you will hit -- you will convert to a Z visa, which is a four-year visa that allows you to work in this country. You've got to pay your taxes, you've got to keep your nose clean, but you can come back -- go back and forth to your home country as much as you want.

It's renewable after four years, and if you've played by the rules, you can renew from year five to year eight. And if you do the math, you'll see once you've got that second renewal done, you will then be at a point where there will be green cards that will become available to deal with the undocumented workers. And the way this plan works is, once everybody has cleared the family backlog in year eight, we will make sure there are enough green cards available so that anybody who has paid the fines that are required, satisfactorily completed two terms as a Z visa worker, gone back home and filed an application, we'll be able to accommodate those people who qualify, getting green cards within the following five years.

So if you do everything that's required of you, if you pay your debt to society, if you pay your fine, if you pay your taxes, and if you go back to your home country, or if that's somehow impracticable, you go outside the country, and you file your application from overseas, you will then be able to get a green card sometime between the year nine and year 13, depending again on the characteristics and points you bring to the table.

This satisfies the requirement that you go to the back of the line, because the line will have been cleared; that you pay your debt to society, so it's not an amnesty, but it is a realistic opportunity for people who are here and have done nothing more than commit a status violation. And then those people will be able to get their green cards between year nine and year 13.

And here's the really important announcement I want to make -- it needs to get out there. There is a cutoff date for Z visas for people who are undocumented. The only people who will be eligible to get a Z visa as a person who is here illegally is someone who arrived in this country prior to January 1 of 2007. You're going to have to prove that you were in the country prior to January 1, 2007. I reckon right now there are some people who, tomorrow, will pick up the paper in other parts of the world, and will think, well, maybe I can cross the border now and then try to pretend that I was here prior to January 1, 2007.

So I'm going to explain why that would be the absolute dumbest thing to do if you ever want to have a prayer of getting any kind of a benefit under the temporary worker program. We catch a very significant number of people who cross the border illegally. We now fingerprint them. If you cross the border, we catch you, we fingerprint you, you will never get into this program, because that fingerprint, dated tomorrow or dated a week from now or dated a month from now is going to be conclusive proof that you were not in this country as of the cutoff date; that you broke the law after the cutoff date. And that will take you out of the program for life.

So for those who are weighing in their minds whether they want to take a crack at coming in and trying to fool the system, here's the warning -- the warning is, the existence of the fingerprint system, which we use for everybody that's apprehended, guarantees that a person who is caught crossing the border now or since January 1 of this year is going to take themselves out of ever getting any benefit under this for the rest of their lives. That is a very powerful sanction, and it ought to counsel anybody who is thinking of rushing for the border that that would be the absolute worst thing to do if you ever want to participate in this kind of program.

So that's the overview of the program.

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: I'll just make a very brief comment about the overall plan and just the generalities of the plan. The President, from the very beginning, said we want a plan that is not amnesty, and we want a plan that is not animosity. So it's not about automatic amnesty and it's not about a mass deportation. That middle ground is very difficult to find. We believe we have found that middle ground. This is not amnesty; there is no automatic path to citizenship. Secretary Chertoff mentioned there are fines. If you want a path to a green card, you have to wait in line, you have to qualify, you have to apply. So there's nothing automatic about it.

The other part here that is very important, that I hope you just please recognize how big it is, it's this idea of moving from a system that traditionally has been based on having family connections to a system that is primarily driven by job skills and national need -- what does the country need, and therefore, that's what we would like to bring in through our immigration system. If you have family members, that can only help. But that is a very big shift. And what we're doing here is designing a system that's going to help our economy, it's going to help us grow. We've said before many times that every developed economy in the world has to embrace immigration if they want to grow.

We're going to do this right, we're going to do this in a bipartisan way, and this is going to give our country a tremendous advantage over the rest of the world.

And the last thing I'll say is, this has been a tremendous bipartisan effort. We had senators from both sides working on this, going through the details, paying a tremendous amount of attention. This is the only path to comprehensive reform. So if people want to support comprehensive reform, this is the bill. There is no other game in town, this is it.

So we'll take some questions.

MR. SNOW: Okay, since we have 15 minutes, I'm going to ask all three of you gentlemen to come up here, and then you can sort of step up as necessary to answer the questions. If you can keep the questions brief, we'll try to keep the answers brief.

Terry, you start.

Q: How many illegal immigrants would get legal status under this bill?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: That's going to depend on how many pay the fines, how many otherwise qualify. I mean, the estimate is that we currently have about 12 million in the country, maybe between 11 million and 12 million. Obviously, those who committed crimes are out, gang bangers are out. Of the remainder it depends, A, how many want it, how many pay the fines, how many complete the two years -- the two separate terms of temporary work. So it's going to be some number between one and several million.

Q: You don't have anything -- you can't -- as you look at this, you haven't been able to identify a number more specific?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Well, it depends on --

Q: I understand that --

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Your -- I can tell you what the -- the general estimate is about 11 million to 12 million. What I can't -- and we estimate, could be anywhere from 15 to 20 percent will be disqualified based on problems with respect to criminality, or things of that sort. What I can't tell you is what people want. Historically, if you look back to '86, about 37 percent of the people opted for citizenship. So that may be telling, but it may not be telling. And that's speculative.

MR. STANZEL: Terry -- I'm sorry, just to clarify -- Terry, you were asking about legal status, not citizenship.

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: I'm sorry, you were asking about citizenship or green cards or legal status? Well, I would say that if you take 11 million to 12 million, and you take an estimate that somewhere between 15 and 20 percent can be disqualified for criminality or other grounds, then the balance are people who would be eligible to take that first step, which is the Z visa.

MR. KAPLAN: If I could, there will also be some of that 12 million who had been previously removed by court order, or -- and had left the country and reentered illegally. That's a felony and those people would not be eligible for the program.

Q: What's the real number?

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: Well, one of the great things about this -- having comprehensive immigration reform is that we will be able to find out. There are estimates -- if you have 11 million, 12 million people who are here illegally, this will enable them to come out of the shadows so that we know who is here and who is working here, so we'll know what the number is. But the estimate at this point is somewhere between 11 million and 12 million.

MR. SNOW: One further point. It not only allows them to come out of the shadows, it creates a positive incentive for doing so because employers face stiff sanctions for not having fully documented workers. Furthermore, if somebody is here without documentation, they're out, they don't get to come back. So keep in mind, there are very strong incentives for people to come forward.

Q: Would there be a requirement for people here to carry some type of ID card?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Part of this process is that once we enroll people and people get the Z visa, we will have distributed tamper-proof cards with a fingerprint and a photograph for each of the people who qualify to get a Z visa, and that will be their identification.

Q: Two questions. One is, how involved -- does the administration consider this its bill? How involved were you guys, and who was involved in the day-to-day negotiations? I was kind of under the impression that you guys were in the room, but let the senators hash it out. So how much of this is your bill? And secondly, do you -- can you help us understand, or at least explain to our readers and viewers how the point system would work, what are the various metrics?

MR. KAPLAN: Well, first question, I'll say that there's been extremely intensive involvement by the administration, starting with the President laying out the framework and the goals of comprehensive immigration reform, and then sending up his two Cabinet Secretaries, Secretary Chertoff and Secretary Gutierrez, to engage, first, in some listening sessions with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as we started this process this year to figure out where the areas of potential agreement would be, and then very significant sessions on Capitol Hill over the last, I would say, probably two or three months, involving 10 to 12 senators at a time, and the two Cabinet Secretaries.

There's no question that this is a Senate product and reflects a bipartisan agreement among those senators, but with the, as I said, extensive involvement of the administration, and the framework that the President laid out at the outset.

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: I mean, without getting into excruciating detail on the points, the points are arranged to reward or to acknowledge various kinds of positive merits: education, engagement in a specialty occupation, engagement in an occupation which has high demand, where there's a labor shortage, positive experience working with a U.S. firm, employer vouching for the person's qualifications and retaining them, levels of education, vocational training, apprenticeships, learning English. And those are arrayed in a way so as to give an opportunity for different paths, all of which are merit based.

Q: How much is this bill -- if it passes, how much would it cost to implement when you add fencing, Border Patrol, and then clearing the backlogs? The agency has had trouble clearing backlogs in the past.

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: We're still costing out, and we're still getting into those details. And I'd rather not throw out a number now, but we'll be working with OMB to cost out the bill. I can tell you this, that --

Q: What about ballpark?

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: Well, but let me just say this, that whatever that final number will be, it will be a lot less costly than to remain in a system that is socially unsustainable and where we can't even identify the cost. So we'll have a cost number at some point.

Q: Okay, but just to follow up on the backlogs point, the immigration system, for years and years, has had trouble clearing green cards, clearing citizenship applications, huge backlogs. What makes them -- what makes you think you can do it now when you're saying you're going to clear the whole backlog that built up for years and years and years?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Well, of course, one of the issues is when you get your green card, getting to citizenship. That backlog actually got cleared except for background checks. We do anticipate there will be processing fees for people who are applying, which are meant to defray a significant part of the cost.

But there will have to, obviously, be an investment in upgrading your IT and all the other structures that allow you to process people more quickly.

I think what Secretary Gutierrez said is completely right -- we're paying a huge cost now; it's just a hidden cost. It's a cost in terms of enforcement dollars, frustration, all the collateral damage that's done to society from having a system that's unregulated. And I think it's pretty clear that whatever we pay to get it fixed is going to be a lot less than we're paying now.

Q: How long can somebody get essentially a free ride -- if they're here illegally now, but they don't want to jump the hoops to get the green card, and you get the Z visa by doing nothing right away -- right? -- and that's for four years. I guess they'd have to go home and then come back, and then you get another one for four more years --

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: You mentioned free ride and do nothing, which I think needs to be clarified --

Q: Well, you don't have to do anything to get it, right? Just say, well, I was here before --

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: You have to enroll, you have to demonstrate that you were here prior to the cutoff date, obviously not be a felon or otherwise have violated the law, and then you get it. And then, in order to continue to stay here, you've got to work. It's not a retirement thing. You've got to pay a fine. Eventually --

Q: You've got to pay a fine to get your Z visa?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Yes, you've got to pay a fine to get your Z visa, $1,000. And there will be a processing fee, as well, which is cost-based. It's not meant to be a punishment. At the renewal stage, you have to demonstrate you've performed the work requirement, you've kept your nose clean. Then you can renew.

Sometime between the time you start and -- you've got to go back and apply for a green card, if you want one, and that means going back home or at least leaving the country.

Q: At the end of the four years, or the end of the eight years?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: By the eighth year you will have to -- if you want a green card.

Q: If you're a law-abiding illegal worker in this country, you pay $1,000 and work here for eight more years --

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Correct. And you actually could work further than that. You don't have to get a green card.

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: Did you say law-abiding legal?

Q: Illegal.

Q: Because we're not --

Q: Law-abiding illegal -- law-abiding --

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: They will be legal.

Q: It starts to sound like amnesty, is what I'm getting at. It's an eight-year, nine-year amnesty program. And then at the end of that, you've got to go, assuming you can find them at the workplace. Is that how it works?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: No, here's what it is. It is -- in order to come out of what is currently a system that is broken, where there are millions of undocumented workers, in order to get regulated, you have to come forward, you have to pass a background check, you have to demonstrate you were here prior to January 2007, you've got to pay a fine. At that point, you can continue to renew in four-year increments, as long as you're working, you're paying your taxes and you're abiding by the law.

So is it -- now, if you don't want a green card, you're right, you don't have to pay an additional fine, you'll have paid one fine. We'll have done your background check and we'll have then periodically checked to make sure you that you are working, you're satisfying the work requirement.

If you don't do that, you have the same person doing the work, not paying the taxes, maybe stealing someone's identity, and you are perpetuating a system where that person can be victimized. And we're going to have more raids and more of what we have now. So is it harshly punitive? No. We're not treating this as a capital offense. But here's what it does.

First and foremost, it means that my agents who go out and enforce the law can spend their time looking for drug dealers and gang bangers, instead of maids who are working in hotels. I only have so many agents. I suggest you ask the American people, would you rather have the agent track down a gang banger and a drug dealer, or a maid? I think pretty much all of them will say, let's go get the gang banger and the drug dealer.

So we're going to bring everybody into a regulated system. We'll get the taxes. They'll pay the fine. They'll have to learn English at the end of year eight. And then they'll have an opportunity, but not a guarantee of getting a green card.

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: Somebody, someone mentioned today -- this word "amnesty" is thrown out as if though it's the answer to all the questions and all the quandaries. We made sure that this was not amnesty. This is not an unconditional pardon. And very importantly, there is no automatic path to citizenship. And if you go back and look at a lot of the bills that were around last year, there was a sense that there was an automatic green card somewhere in the future. There is no automatic path.

But if you call something like this "amnesty," then where does that take you? We can't stand still and keep on throwing one-liners at each other, the system is just going to continue getting worse. So I think we have found that middle ground that the President has been asking for.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the path forward in terms of the legislation? Are you now -- is this like now the administration's plan? Are you now going to try to negotiate with the House? And then, number two, are you going to -- what do you see as the biggest political threat to this, from Democrats who think this is too -- you know, not easy enough? Or from Republicans who think it's not hard enough?

MR. KAPLAN: Well, first of all, the President made some remarks a half hour, an hour or so ago, heralding this moment, which is a big landmark in getting a bill which will, itself, be an historic achievement. The administration, as I said before, has been intensively involved up until now, and I expect will continue to be intensively involved as it moves to the Senate floor next week.

We're keeping our eye, first, on getting the bill passed in the Senate, and the President urged members from both parties to support this bipartisan product. Obviously, once we get to that point of Senate passage, that will be another landmark and we'll turn our attentions to the House, where Speaker Pelosi has previously indicated that she's interested in moving a bipartisan product through that body.

So there are a few more steps along the way, but reaching this moment is an important milestone and reflects just very intensive, thoughtful work by a bipartisan group of senators. There is going to be people on both sides of the aisle who think they didn't get everything they want in this bill. That's the nature of a bipartisan agreement -- you're going to have to make -- no one is going to get everything that they wanted in the bill. But what both sides were able to achieve here was, as the Secretary talked about, the middle ground that accomplishes the principles the President laid out. There will be people who try to pull it apart, from both sides, but we think that people who look at this -- Democrats and Republicans who look at this and want a permanent fix to this problem will think that this is a good product and will support it.

SECRETARY GUTIERREZ: The political opponents -- I think the question was who are the political opponents. I would say the political opponents are those who would demand perfection and those who would demand that they get 100 percent of what they want out of a comprehensive bill. The political allies are those who understand compromise and bipartisanship, and that's what's going to get this done.

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: And let me put my two cents in. The question is do you want to solve the problem, or do you want to complain about it? This is the solution to the problem. There will be people who want to complain and will miss the problem if they can't complain about it. This is about solving it.

Q: Given the broad support that there already is in the Senate, looking to the House, do you know how many Republican votes you can get at this point? I mean, are you at that stage where you can say we can get this amount of Republicans?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: I don't think we're at the point of counting votes. First of all, we did talk to members of the House as we went through our listening process, to try to get a sense of what their concerns were. And I think that when we put the bill together, working with the Senate, as we started to talk about the proposal we certainly had in mind that you have to have something that passes both Houses.

My observation over the last couple of years is that legislation is a dynamic process, and people's willingness to join something changes as they observe it get fleshed out and they see who else is part of it. So I think that certainly when you look at the range of people who support this, it ought to at least suggest to people they should have an open mind, look at the bill and see whether it doesn't achieve a good deal of what people want, even if it's not everything.

Q: Isn't the Senate road the easy and first step in the whole process? The House is where they had -- there were so many problems last year. The Senate seemed very much -- much more amenable toward the President's -- the framework the President had laid down. So don't you really have the bigger battle ahead?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: You know, I don't think one is easier than another. There are certain characteristics of the way each house works. I mean, the Senate requires, in a sense, greater agreement, because you have to really get -- deal with the issue of filibuster, and there are all kinds of procedural things that are not present in the House. The House really allows things to move more rapidly.

In terms of where people are on the merits, I think, you know, a year has passed, people will evaluate what's presented. This is not the same thing that was produced last year, and we'll see where we are.

Q: Having the Democrats in charge in the House now might make it easier?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: I don't know -- you can speculate. I think we have to deal with that on the merits. I'll tell you -- let me just say -- I'll tell you one reason there's a bill in the Senate is because I don't think anybody came in with preconceptions about what was achievable. There are all kinds of people who can tell you, it can't be done, it will never be done, it's too hard. I've heard that not only since I've been here, but before. Everybody sat down and said, if we want to solve the problem, how do we make it work? And if that spirit continues, there's no limit on what you can do.

MR. SNOW: Okay, I'm we're going to have to call it on that. We'll have plenty more on this the next few days. Thanks guys.

Do we have the fact sheets yet? Okay, we'll get fact sheets to you as soon as they're available.

END 4:45 P.M. EDT

George W. Bush, Press Briefing on Immigration Reform Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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