During his tenure as homeland security secretary, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff has overseen a dramatic buildup in border security and immigration enforcement. As part of this crackdown on illegal immigrants, Chertoff has launched such new programs as Operation Community Shield (going after immigrant gang members), Operation Streamline (arresting and detaining illegal border crosses), and the Secure Border Initiative (which includes the 670-mile fence and the virtual fence).
Today, DHS deploys nearly 18,000 border patrol agents and has 30,000 prison beds dedicated to immigrants. In pursuing the immigrant crackdown, Chertoff has won broad bipartisan support for large annual increases in ICE and CBP budgets and for his initiatives that merge federal enforcement with local and state policing. What is more, many local and state governments have passed new laws aimed at driving unauthorized immigrants out of their communities.
Chertoff has set in motion a well-coordinated and unremitting immigrant dragnet in motion. The law-and-order immigration apparatus directed by DHS is certainly demonstrating results. But with its emphasis on law enforcement and its disregard for justice it is destroying millions of lives while splitting communities and families.
“Whether you like what we are doing or not,” said Chertoff in his "State of Immigration" speech on Oct. 23, “it would be hard to argue we were conducting business as usual in the last year and 18 months (since his appointment).”
Now that the infrastructure, funding, rationale, and strategy for a wide-ranging enforcement regime are in place, a new “business as usual” immigration policy is being passed on to the Obama administration. Despite declarations as a candidate that he would pursue comprehensive immigration reform in his first term, Obama will be hard put to back away from Chertoff’s strategy to enforce immigration law “as it currently exists.”
Any retreat from Chertoff’s hard-line position on enforcement will be met with an upsurge of angry anti-immigration organizing. And any Chertoff-like proposal for an expanded temporary workers program will likely be opposed, as FAIR signals, as a de facto legalization initiative. As the economy stagnates, active support for immigrant rights and legalization is likely to decline, making yet more difficult for the Obama administration to summon the political will to fight back against the enforcement-first measures that Chertoff and the restrictionists have set in motion.
The Obama administration and the new Democratic Congress will soon face the challenge of addressing the immigration crisis. The path of least resistance may be to accept the “State of Immigration” as shaped and defined by Chertoff and the Republicans.
But the bolder path is to stand on reason and principle in backing a new comprehensive reform bill, which meets valid citizen concerns about effective border control and sustainable immigration flows while also ensuring that immigrant workers and their families are treated with justice and fairness.