Chertoff makes push for immigration change in Raleigh

jshaffer@newsobserver.comSeptember 10, 2013 

— Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged an immigration policy overhaul while in Raleigh on Tuesday, calling for a compromise that increases border security and toughens regulation while giving undocumented workers a chance at citizenship.

Chertoff, who served in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet, described a broken system. He said until now, proposals to change the way the United States deals with foreign workers have been dismissed as “amnesty,” but that meaningful reform is now possible to the benefit of the economy, national security and human decency.

“This time, I think there’s a broad coalition,” Chertoff said at a forum put on by the N.C. Farm Bureau. “The concern about an amnesty is not as strong anymore because people realize this is not an amnesty.”

The former secretary spoke as the U.S. House mulls immigration reform with tentative plans to take up the issue in October. A bill similar to Chertoff’s proposal has already cleared the Senate, providing a 13-year road to citizenship.

Chertoff pushed for a plan that would put new high-technology security measures in place along with more border agents. It would add a more secure, sophisticated employee verification system, making status easier to check.

Notably, it would allow workers in the country illegally to apply for citizenship provided they pass background checks and pay fines associated with breaking previous immigration laws. These workers would be processed after immigrants who followed the law, and they could be granted temporary status that would be renewable.

“Those folks would definitely be paying their dues for coming here,” said Raudel Hernandez, pastor of Summit en Espanol and a panelist Tuesday. “This is a pathway that doesn’t exist.”

As it stands, Chertoff said, law enforcement officers targeting illegal immigrants spend most of their time and strained budget chasing people who only want to work hard and feed their families as gardeners or housekeepers – not dangerous criminals.

At the same time, major industries in the United States rely on immigrant labor to fill low-skilled and low-paying jobs. Taking those laborers out of the market, especially in agriculture, risks sending those jobs to Mexico. Workers who can pass eligibility hurdles such as E-verify can’t do the work, and those who fail them do it very well, said Bert Lemkes, co-owner of the North Carolina-based horticultural business Van Wingerden International.

“Seventy percent of the labor force in agriculture is undocumented,” said Lemkes, also a panelist. “The other 30 percent will lose their jobs if the other 70 percent doesn’t show up anymore.”

Third, Chertoff said, roughly 11 million undocumented workers inhabit the country with no plans to leave. Foreign students earn graduate degrees in the United States and leave with them. In Raleigh, Chertoff proposed a legal channel for immigrants who want to work and employers who want to hire them.

“You can’t repeal the laws of economics,” he said, “and the fundamental law of economics are supply and demand.”

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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