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Real ID is key, says Chertoff

The Homeland Security chief urges compliance with license standards.

December 13, 2007|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Wednesday that his agency would issue "retooled" regulations concerning national driver's license standards within a matter of weeks and warned states and businesses not to obstruct efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.

In a speech detailing the Department of Homeland Security's accomplishments during 2007, Chertoff urged nationwide compliance with the Real ID Act, which was passed in 2005 following the discovery that several of the Sept. 11 terrorists had used fake identification to board airplanes. That law set nationwide standards designed to make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to secure driver's licenses. Chertoff said he had no illusion about the reactions of California and other states that have fought it on grounds of privacy and security.

Noting that critics have "an ideological discomfort" with national standards for driver's licenses, Chertoff said, "I have yet to hear a persuasive argument for why it is a good thing for privacy to have driver's licenses that are easily forged or counterfeited."

Mike Marando, spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, said: "California has proactively demonstrated a leadership role by engaging in an ongoing, sustained dialogue with the Department of Homeland Security, and they know what our key issues are: funding, the recertification time frame, privacy and security."

Chertoff also criticized businesses for not embracing the department's E-Verify system, which checks workers' names and Social Security numbers against government databases to determine whether the information is valid. Businesses have complained that inaccuracies have flagged legal employees, including U.S. citizens, as being here illegally. Westat Corp., a private research company, reported last month that almost 10% of foreign-born U.S. citizens processed through E-Verify were initially told they were unauthorized to work.

Chertoff said he was sympathetic to sectors of the economy that rely on illegal workers, acknowledging that employers "were afraid if we enforced the law, that would hurt their business." But, he added, "the wrong way to address that concern is to shut our eyes to lawbreaking and create what I call silent amnesty."

States have said they are being forced to absorb millions of dollars in costs for Real ID, calling the program an unfunded mandate. Chertoff indicated that the Real ID regulations to be issued soon would "satisfy some of these concerns about cost."

Likewise, businesses have criticized Washington for asking them to match Social Security records when the government databases are full of errors.

"Chertoff is not wrong for trying to enforce the law, but he's being disingenuous," said Angelo Paparelli, president of the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers. "Until they fix and improve the integrity of their own databases and the security of the process that issues documents of identity, they cannot honestly expect employers to comply with the demands that they're making."

Paparelli, whose immigration-law practice is based in California and New York, also blamed Congress for failing to fund either the Real ID program or the repairs to government databases. "Without resources, Chertoff is essentially doing the only thing readily within his power," Paparelli said. "He's authorizing raids of work sites."

Work-site raids this year around the country resulted in the arrest of hundreds of illegal workers. But, Chertoff said, because Congress did not approve an overhaul of immigration law, "we missed a critical opportunity, not through lack of effort but through lack of result, to implement a comprehensive solution to a decades-old problem that we know cannot simply be solved by enforcement."

Complaining that he and other officials had testified before Congress 224 times over the last year, he blamed the bloated congressional structure for turmoil and "organizational churn" at the agency.

"The American people are safer today than they were five years ago in part because of the department's work," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. "But an enormous amount of work still remains to be done."

The department, cobbled together from 22 agencies after the Sept. 11 attacks, has 208,000 employees in agencies as disparate as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Transportation Security Administration. Hailing the agencies' work, Chertoff said the department had enjoyed a number of "quiet accomplishments," thwarting terrorist attacks or interdicting drug smugglers.

Chertoff said that by next year he hoped to have completed 670 miles of border fencing creating a barrier from the Pacific Ocean to the New Mexico-Texas line. Chertoff also boasted that the Border Patrol had increased by 21% this year, to 12,349 agents, its largest yearly increase.

When he is asked why the United States cannot better control its borders, Chertoff said, he notes opponents' intransigence. "When the television cameras turn off and the spotlight moves to something else, there are a host of interest groups and advocacy groups who work very, very hard to make it difficult to enforce these rules" against illegal immigration, he said.

As for drug interdiction, he said the Coast Guard over the last year had seized a record 350,000 pounds of cocaine with an estimated street value of $4.7 billion.

On terrorism, Chertoff said the fact that there had been no attacks in the U.S. in six years was "not a cause for complacency or a time to celebrate the end of the struggle."

Citing the bombing this week of U.N. offices and a government building in Algeria, he said: "The threat is not going away. The enemy has not lost interest."

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johanna.neuman@latimes.com

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