Remarks on Illegal Immigration by Attorney General Reno, I.N.S. Commissioner Meissner, Secretary of Labor Reich, El Paso Chief Border Patrol Agent Reyes, and I.N.S. Western Region Director Gus De La Vina
The Briefing Room
11:40 A.M. EST
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: I'm pleased to be here today with the Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, the INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, U.S. Customs Service Commissioner George Weise, and two special heroes of mine: the Director of the INS Western Region, Gus de la Vena, and Chief Silvestre Reyes of the El Paso Border Patrol.
We have just come from a meeting with President Clinton at which time he signed a presidential memorandum directing our agencies to move forward with new initiatives to gain control of our border and better enforce our immigration laws.
We discussed with the President our intentions to work with Congress towards enactment of his 1996 budget package, as well as on immigration legislation that will soon be submitted by the administration.
Both the budget and legislative packages contain vital resources and authorities that will help us continue to reverse the failed immigration policies and practices of the past. Much in the budget represents cuts, but this is a very vital effort, and these additional resources, totalling $1 billion, I think, are essential and much needed in our efforts to provide for control of illegal immigration while at the same time maintaining this nation's tradition as a nation of immigrants.
We briefed the President on a series of border patrol operations that have, and will, continue to make a tremendous impact on the Southwest border. They also will make a difference around the country. They've come down here now to share with you what we have told the President. But I'd first like to put it in context.
Two years ago tomorrow night, I first met the President of the United States as I sat in the Oval Office, as he decided whether he wanted to name me as attorney general. One of the first issues he talked about was immigration and his desire to effectively control illegal immigration in this country.
I set about that effort. I visited the San Diego border in August of 1993. I went up to the border; I saw the port of entry. I saw immigration inspectors at the port of entry overwhelmed because they didn't have adequate resources to move lines of cars along smoothly and quickly. I saw backlogs at that port of entry, and I resolved to do everything I could to get the resources to make sure that the ports of entry were welcoming ports for legal commerce and legal transactions.
I went to the border and saw masses of immigrants gathered along the fence, coming across the border at night. And I watched Border Patrol Agents who had totally inadequate resources who didn't have the agents, who didn't have cars, who didn't have technology that we knew that was available. And I resolved to do everything I could to make a difference and get that equipment, get that personnel to the border.
I visited Nogales shortly thereafter and had an opportunity to see a different situation along the border. Again, long lines at the port of entry. Again, fences that were not repaired because of inadequate resources; border patrol agents that didn't have cars and technology; totally inadequate personnel to deal with the problem -- that's what I inherited two years ago.
The borders were not being secured because they could not be. The necessary resources were not being allocated. I don't think that the mission of the Immigration and Naturalization Service had been taken seriously.
Two years ago very little was being done to reduce the magnet that draws illegal immigrants here in the first place -- the opportunity for a job in the United States. There were virtually no methods of helping employers determine if their employees were eligible to work in this country, and little enforcement staff to clamp down on those who were not.
Beyond the borders there were problems, too. We had a long list of criminal aliens out on the streets, and I had seen that before I came to Washington, as a prosecutor who would have a young prosecutor walk into my office, say, I have an undocumented alien in the court. The case is going to be dismissed because we don't have sufficient evidence. I've called Immigration, and Immigration says they can't respond because they don't have the staff.
As I traveled around the country, I heard that from police chiefs. I heard that from prosecutors. Again, an agency that needed the resources to develop a real strategy to control the border and bring INS into the 20th century before it got to the 21st century.
In July of 1993, we unveiled a number of initiatives to crack down on illegal alien smuggling and increased penalties. In February of 1994, we mapped out a comprehensive strategy that focuses on both border and interior enforcement, and we are implementing it.
Last year, Congress supported our efforts by passing the Crime Bill which contains significant new funding for immigration initiatives. INS was finally able to begin amassing the resources necessary to address the whole flow of illegal traffic at the border. Half of all illegal entries occurred along the southwest border. Therefore, it is critical to gain and maintain control there first.
At the end of the first year of our watch, our success was measured by a 20 percent decline in the number of aliens being apprehended along the southwest border. We began to beef up the busiest land ports of entry with more inspectors and new technology. We were also able, for the first time ever, to make a commitment to the states that the federal government recognized its responsibility and would start to reimburse the states for the incarceration of criminal aliens.
We believe we can, and, in fact, we have already begun to make a critical difference in strengthening the nation's ability to control its immigration initiative. Having targeted new resources to where they are needed most -- at the border -- we will now ask Congress for its help as we continue these efforts and take giant steps forward to fulfill the rest of our missing.
Let me ask Commissioner Meissner and the others to detail them for you.
COMMISSIONER MEISSNER: Thank you. With the budget that the President submitted yesterday, the administration is proposing a truly comprehensive approach to enforcing the nation's laws against illegal immigration.
The infusion of resources includes the following: We will, as the Attorney General said, continue our crackdown at the Southwest border. We are asking Congress for more border patrol agents and more equipment to fortify areas where traffic has been historically heavy or is now expected to increase as a result of the tightening that has already occurred.
We will ensure that ports of entry are substantially improved both to facilitate legal commerce and traffic in the wake of NAFTA and to detect and apprehend illegal entries resulting from tighter borders between the ports.
To complement and support our border control strategy, we will reduce the magnet of jobs for illegal aliens with a strong interagency work site enforcement initiative. The work site enforcement initiative, as the President has directed in the directive that was just signed, will take place along a concept of targeted deterrence areas. The Labor Department and the immigration services new investigative resources will be focused in those deterrence areas. The deterrence areas will be essentially the seven large states that have the largest numbers of illegal immigrants and within those states the industries and employers that have traditionally employed illegal labor.
We will also assist employers in determining if their employees are legally eligible to work in the United States by testing new methods to verify employment eligibility without discriminating or invading privacy and confidentiality.
We will also devote significant new resources to the detention and deportation of criminal aliens in order to triple the number of criminal aliens and others subject to deportation since the administration began.
And this year we will expand on our commitment to help states pay for the costs associated with the incarceration of criminal aliens, education of immigrant children and emergency health care.
In addition, the President shortly will submit to Congress an immigration will that will include provisions that are echoing the themes of the '96 budget. The legislation will include some of the following: Authorizing a national employment verification program to conduct tests of various means of verifying work authorization status in cost-effective, fraud-resistant and nondiscriminatory ways; streamlining deportation and exclusion procedures so that INS can remove more people, criminal aliens and deportable aliens from the United States more quickly; substantially increasing the penalties for alien-smuggling, immigrant document fraud, fraudulently claiming to be a United States citizen when seeking public benefits, and discrimination in the application of employment verification laws; authorizing a border services fee to help hire additional INS and customs inspectors at high-volume ports of entry.
The new inspectors will facilitate legal crossings as well as preempt entry by mala fide aliens and stop cross-border drug smuggling. Amending the RICO statute to authorize its use to pursue alien-smuggling organizations, giving INS wiretap authorize for investigation of alien-smuggling operations and making asset forfeiture available as a penalty in alien-smuggling cases.
This is a comprehensive enforcement strategy. It focuses on our borders, our workplaces, our communities. It builds on recent successes at the Southwest border, but it backs them up with targeted employer and deportation initiatives. It continues the administration's investment in a serious, effective enforcement program, not quick fixes. We believe it represents an historic step in the right direction, and reflects broad public consensus for immigration enforcement that is fair, but firm.
Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the letter that Barbara Jordan has sent to the President. It is in your information packets, and it firmly endorses the program that we are pursuing. Thank you.
SECRETARY REICH: Thank you, Janet. Even with the platform, I don't come close. I have -- let me just say a couple of things. At the risk of speaking like an economist, let me just say that there is a supply problem, but also a demand problem with regard to illegal immigration in the United States. We've just been talking about cutting the supply, making it more difficult for undocumented illegal immigrants to cross the border. Part of that supply strategy, incidentally, has to do with a strong and stable Mexican economy. And, not incidentally, the President's policy with regard to the peso or NAFTA initiatives are all related to a strong and stable Mexican economy. If there are good jobs down there, there is less incentive to come north.
But let's look at the demand side of the equation. One reason that employers in the United States are willing to risk employer sanctions right now and hire illegal immigrants is because they can get those illegal immigrants at less than the minimum wage, put them in squalid working conditions, subject them to subminimal working conditions and they know that those illegal immigrants are unlikely to complain.
And therefore, part of our strategy is focusing not only on those areas, but also those industries that are likely to have those kinds of problems where there is likely to be exploitation of illegal immigrants, there's likely to be a magnet for employers to pull illegal immigrants from Mexico and subject them to subminimal working conditions, subminimal wages and so forth. It's no secret why illegal immigrants come to the United States. They want a job, and there are unscrupulous employers who know it. They know they can lure illegals to the country with the promise of work, even awful work with meager wages and unsafe working conditions. So they -- our plan here, and with regard to the Labor Department's part of this, the goal is very simple: Get rid of the working conditions that attract illegal immigrants in targeted areas and in targeted industries where we find substantial abuses.
The President's budget, as you have heard, calls for 365 new INS inspectors. The budget also calls for 186 new wage-and-hour inspectors in the Department of Labor similarly targeted with regard to geographic areas and industries where we've seen the most abuse to make sure that no worker is subject to substandard wages and working conditions.
Or, to put it another way, we 're on the side of companies that make money the old-fashioned way -- they earn it. They obey the law, they treat their workers fairly, they don't hire people who aren't supposed to be in the country in the first place. Nobody should be forced to toil in squalid conditions for paltry pay. That is not how it is supposed to work in America, and vigorous enforcement, particularly in those areas of the country and also in those industries where we have seen abuses occur is going to help deter immigration, illegal immigration. It is also going to deter these employer abuses.
Also, I should add, no American legal immigrant or a lifetime American should have to compete with illegal workers. Hiring illegals is unfair not only to the illegals themselves, it's also unfair to legal immigrants and lifelong Americans, the risk being replaced by those who tolerate terrible conditions, but are afraid to speak out.
I have from time to time talked about the importance of creating a workplace for the '90s. But some employers -- and let's be very candid about this -- in certain regions of the country in certain industries have missed the point. They've created a workplace for the '90s, all right, but the 1890s. And we're seeing in certain of these areas 12-hour days, back-breaking work, meager wages, under the minimum wage, no safety equipment, no ventilation, mean-spirited supervisors, fire doors that are bolted shut. This is what we saw in the 1890s in this country. And they think they can get away with it by employing illegal immigrants who won't complain.
Well, they can't get away with it. And so let me explain today's announcement very clearly with regard to the demand side of the equation, the Department of Labor. This administration is not going to tolerate sweatshops or working conditions that are like sweatshops. We are going after employers just as we are making sure that illegal immigrants are not coming across the border.
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: In the past two years, I've had the opportunity to visit the border, to be with border patrol agents. They do such an exceptional job under very difficult situations, sometimes in desolate terrain, oftentimes with great pressures, and I'm very proud to serve with them. One of the people I'm most proud to serve with is Chief Silvestre Reyes, the Chief Patrol Officer of the El Paso sector of the border who is really responsible for the development of Operation Hold The Line in that sector.
CHIEF REYES: Thank you very much. Good morning. This morning I'd like to give you just a couple of minutes on the operation and the strategy, the changing strategy in the El Paso area and how it's affected our operations in that region of this 2,000- mile border with Mexico.
When I first arrived there in December of 1993, we had on the average between 8,000 and 10,000 people crossing daily from a metropolitan area of Mexico, Juarez, into the El Paso area, which is a city of about 600,000 to 800,000 people in the greater metropolitan region there. With these types of crossings, it created a tremendous pressure on both cities. It was a border that was pretty much out of control. We had a nine-mile fence that had been breached in over 120 different areas. We had a strategy that required our agents to fall back into the city and allow undocumented people to enter the city, and then we were forced to try to chase them down in the community, in the neighborhoods in the city of El Paso.
That created a lot of tension. It created a lot of complaints, and it created a lot of stress on both the agents and the undocumented people in both the city of Juarez and the city of El Paso.
What we decided to do then is to, first of all, take approximately 400 agents -- we brought in some resources from the surrounding area, and we put the agents literally right up on the border. We were not interested in generating arrest, we were interested in deterring by the mere presence of agents in stopping people from attempting to cross altogether. And it worked very well. Apprehensions have gone significantly. They're down approximately 73 percent.
Another byproduct of the change in strategy has been that the fence that had been in disrepair, once we repaired it, has stayed in repair. Complaints have really dwindled down. And I think it sets a new standard in terms of border control that is being enjoyed by both the city of El Paso and the city of Juarez. I think people now, after some 16 months, have become accustomed to this new strategy. They like what they see, and we have enjoyed unprecedented support from the communities.
Thank you very much.
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Thank you, Chief Reyes.
I've had an opportunity to visit the San Diego sector with the person who has been the Chief Patrol Officer, Gus de la Vina. He is now the Director of the INS Western region, responsible for the Arizona sector and the California sectors. He's also responsible for the overall operation. And again, not only have I seen border patrol agents who have been doing such a magnificent job, but INS inspectors and other personnel along the border handle tremendous volume and do such an excellent job. And I am very proud of their efforts.
Gus, would you --
CHIEF DE LA VINA: Thank you, Ms. Reno.
San Diego is the largest and busiest border patrol sector of the INS of the United States. Historically, San Diego has been the most trafficked area for illegal entry along the Southwest border, and that covers the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and, of course, us in California. Fifty percent of all the Southwest border apprehensions are coming out of one location, and that is San Diego. And that, ladies and gentlemen, translates to approximately over half a million arrests per year.
Our responsibility in San Diego is to patrol the border. We have 66 miles of international border that falls within our jurisdiction. The volume of people that we're dealing with entering illegally from Mexico uses a 14-mile corridor. And that corridor is between, of course, Tijuana on one side and San Diego on the other. On one side, we have the ocean, on the other side we have the mountainside. The corridor has been utilized for years and years.
Our strategy has been to shift the traffic from the most heavily-trafficked corridor, which is on the western part, which is the closest location from the border to urbanization to the eastern portion, which is more isolated -- we have the mountains, we have better opportunities for apprehensions and better control. We haven't been able to do that for years. The fact is, we've been overwhelmed. We've been overrun.
On any given night in San Diego, we would arrest anywhere in the vicinity of 2,000 to 2,500 people entering illegally through that 14-mile corridor night after night. We wanted to create this shift to the east, to the areas that we would be able to control a lot better, but we didn't have the resources, we didn't have the equipment, we didn't have the technology, we didn't have the personnel. We had the plan, but we didn't have the tools.
Things starting changing for us dramatically when the Attorney General came to San Diego on a tour. This is in August of '93. She toured the area. We did a lot of talking, recognized the problems we were faced with -- primarily trying to -- face tremendous odds night after night and not being successful.
The commitment was made to give us resources. Things started to happen. Once we initiated the plan, which called for a mixture of personnel, technology and equipment, in conjunction with our plan, things started to happen. We initiated Operation Gatekeeper on October 1st of 1994. The plan was in. The plan was the certainty of apprehension should you cross into the western portion of that 14-mile corridor.
By that time we had finished our fence project. We had brought in lights -- most of our activity was occurring during the evening -- stadium lights. We had brought in additional personnel. We had vehicles. We had infrared scopes. We had the technology fingerprint system -- an incredible array of tools that we never had before.
We started showing immediate results. The plan was, if they enter into this particular area, they're going to meet the fence, they're going to meet the lights, they're going to meet the first tier of officers. Should they be successful, they'll go to the second tier and the third tier. It's started to work.
We're very happy to announce that, during the four-month period of this year, from October to January, the fiscal year, we're showing a 25 percent decrease of apprehensions in the San Diego sector. This is very significant for us. When you're taking a look at over half a million arrests every year, 25 percent means a great deal to us. The shift is occurring to the east. We are receiving additional resources to control the most trafficked area of the United States for illegal entry.
Thank you very much.
Q: General Reno, what is the legal impact of the presidential memorandum that was signed today?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: I think the presidential memorandum clearly gives a signal that the President is pleased with our initiatives, wants all agencies to cooperate together, and we've had an opportunity to share, and I have seen, for example, the cooperation that can occur between Customs and INS. You have both agencies at the border. Both have to cooperate. And when you go to Calexico and see a Customs inspector and an INS inspector working together to control that port of entry and to allocate resources so that there is no duplication of fragmentation, I think that's an example of what the President's memorandum can achieve throughout all the executive departments as we work together.
Q: There's pilot money in the program for a national workplace verification system, but groups from the Cato Institute on the right to the National Council La Raza are denouncing this idea as unworkable, prohibitively expensive and a great danger to civil liberties. How do you and Commissioner Meissner respond to that criticism?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: I think they don't understand that it is a pilot project to test what can work and what can work cost effectively with existing databases. We are going to attempt to give employers an opportunity to fairly, appropriately verify employment and eligibility for employment. And in so doing, I think it reduces the risk of all involved for any discriminatory treatment.
Q: General Reno, is this the administration's answer to Prop 187, this plan?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: No. As we indicated, it's about two years ago now, long before, I think, Governor Wilson talked about 187 or decided that immigration was an issue, that the President talked to me here at the White House about the problem. It was the night of February the 8th. It will be a night I don't forget. And it was thereafter that I went to the border, started looking at it firsthand, started seeing the problems and taking steps long before elections.
And what I realized is that this is not something that can be solved overnight. Anybody that just throws resources into it without proper organization and proper planning is going to be in for a big shock. Commissioner Meissner had inherited an agency that didn't have the organization, the infrastructure, the automation necessary to do the job.
When I saw what INS had in terms of automation, if the Miami criminal justice system that I had been involved in had similar automation, I'm not sure it would have worked. We have a long way to go, but we have come a very long way because we're doing it the right way; we're building it in a professional and well-organized manner. We have tremendous challenges, but with the extraordinary people that I have met throughout the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol, I think we can do it.
Q: I'd like two questions --
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: One question, because --
Q: I was going to ask you about money. Do you think the money is enough? Do you think -- the budget will be debated in Congress; do you think -- have you talked to the Republicans? Do they feel this is enough or will they ask for more?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Well, at one -- both in the same time that people are saying you haven't cut enough, and some say you haven't asked for enough. I think the President has done a wonderful job in continuing to reduce the deficit while at the same time investing in critical areas that have too long been neglected. And immigration and border control is clearly one of those efforts.
What we have tried to do in working with all concerned is to fashion a budget that can be used the right way, that's balanced. You can't bring in too many agents at one time, or otherwise you will see agents that are not properly deployed and trained. We'll bring them in an orderly, well-trained manner. But it also blends personnel with technology. If I can make one agent twice as effective with one piece of technology that can last a long time, that's a good investment.
At the same time it's recognizing that we can't just close the front door, we've got to address the back door and take steps to identify the criminal aliens in the system and get them removed. It's focusing on the workplaces that are the magnets for illegal aliens. And I think as a comprehensive package, it is an excellent step forward.
Q: General Reno, the border congressmen, almost every one of them, is opposed to the border crossing fees of $3 and $1.50. Can you -- are you going to be able to fund this without that fee?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: I think it's important for everybody to understand that fee, to understand that anybody coming to this country now that lands at an airport pays a user fee that is returned to that airport port of entry to provide for more personnel, to provide for more equipment, to reduce the lines, to reduce the waiting time necessary to clear that port of entry.
When you cross the Golden Gate Bridge -- or, at least, I don't know about the Golden Gate, but at home, major highways, you pay tolls. You pay tolls on the Florida Turnpike and over many of our bridges. And it is the same concept. But this money will go back to these ports of entry to provide the personnel, to provide the lanes, to provide the equipment that can process people coming to this country for legal purposes, legal traffic, legal trade, and process it quickly and eliminate those long lines that I saw at the San Ysidro port of entry and at the Nogales port of entry.
Q: Do you see much criticism of the user fee in Canada? People there feel that, number one, it's going to be very expensive for daily trips back and forth, which are very common, but also, they believe that the fees raised on the Canadian border will essentially go to deal with problems that are part of the Mexican border.
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: What we want to try to do is make sure that these monies go back to improve in every way possible the ports of entry. But at the same time, for those who are regularly coming to this country, there will be discounted packages for the fees. I don't think the discounts have been set yet.
Q: General, do you see a change in --
Q: The House right now is debating crime bills, and those include immigration and deportation reforms. Is the administration supporting those bills?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: We are working with members of Congress, we are talking with them and have been briefing them on our immigration package, and we look forward to working in a bipartisan way with all of Congress to fashion an immigration bill that can address these issues.
Q: Can you comment specifically on the bills that are being debated this week?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: At this point, I think it would be better to just address the issue -- or, Doris, if you'd like to add something.
Q: General Reno, do you see a shift in the border patrol from interior apprehension to border interdiction to the point that, say, the Labor Department and work site inspectors would eventually replace any interior apprehension?
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: Well, first of all, when you talk about interior apprehension at the workplace, that's not border patrol; those are INS investigators. But each place along the border is going to be different. El Paso is different because there is a wide different there; it's different than the San Diego sector. And I've had an opportunity to see that firsthand.
But there will continue -- the Department of Labor is best able to address the issues of workplace conditions. They are not INS or Immigration investigators, and they do their job best. But working together, I think we can avoid any fragmentation as we continue to address the problem of illegal immigration.
Q: states and employers that you're targeting for the employer verifications to stop the illegal --
ATTORNEY GENERAL RENO: We have started a pilot project that we are expanding to 200 this year with 200 employers. We hope to expand it to 1,000 employers with whom we are testing employer verification systems -- telephone verification systems that permit them to call and to verify that the person is eligible for employment. This has been working well and I think we can expand it.
Somebody had a question for Secretary Reich.
Q: Yes, Secretary Reich, what are the seven big problem industries that we can expect a kind of crackdown in?
SECRETARY REICH: The major problem industries are the garment industry. We have had problems in agriculture; we've had problems in restaurant, fast food; custodial; and also in construction. I would say garment is one of the major problems; agriculture is the second major problem. And again, let me just say that we are working with manufacturers in garment right now for the first time to police the subcontractor sweatshops. And again, the sweatshops are where you have most of the problems with illegal immigration. That is the magnet for a lot of these illegal immigrants not only across the border, but also many of you saw the coverage in yesterday's Times, in New York City, major metropolitan areas.
We are developing, unfortunately, in this country, third-world work sites populated by third-world workers; and we've got to crack down on that.
Q: What states are they in?
SECRETARY REICH: These would be the same -- we're talking about the same states. We're working with the INS in the same states -- major states where we have had those kinds of abuses.
Q: What are the major states, please?
SECRETARY REICH: Let's go through them.
COMMISSIONER MEISSNER: Mainly it's California, Arizona, Texas.
SECRETARY REICH: Do you want to go over it?
COMMISSIONER MEISSNER: Basically the large immigration- impacted states are California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Illinois -- seven states.
SECRETARY REICH: Thank you.
END12:15 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Remarks on Illegal Immigration by Attorney General Reno, I.N.S. Commissioner Meissner, Secretary of Labor Reich, El Paso Chief Border Patrol Agent Reyes, and I.N.S. Western Region Director Gus De La Vina Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/270233