Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he feels the pain of employers pinched by intensified efforts to control illegal immigration, but adds that until Congress enacts broad immigration reforms they shouldn't expect any changes in enforcement.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Chertoff said this week that the rising complaints from businesses offer some evidence the Bush administration's approach is working.
"This is harsh but accurate proof positive that, for the first time in decades, we've succeeded in changing the dynamic and (are) actually beginning to reduce illegal immigration," Chertoff said. "Unfortunately, unless you counterbalance that with a robust system to allow people to come in temporarily and legally, you're going to wind up with an economic problem."
Chertoff defended the actions of his agency, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"We're enforcing the law as it is, but Congress has not yet given us the authority to really expand the temporary worker program," he said in the Tuesday interview. "If we could do that, then most of these businesses could find legal solutions."
Chertoff sharply criticized businesses that complain the crackdowns on their hiring of illegal immigrants will cost them money. In a federal court case last year, groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued that the department had failed to account for the economic impact of new regulations on businesses.
The argument "basically suggests we can't enforce the law because it will prevent people from making money illegally," Chertoff said. "The business community loves it (hiring illegal immigrants) because you have illegals, you pay them less, they have no place to go to complain."
Villaraigosa writes a letter
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wrote Chertoff a letter last month asking federal officials to rethink their policy on workplace immigration crackdowns, saying they could have "severe and lasting effects on our local economy."
Villaraigosa accused federal officials of targeting "established, responsible employers" and said ICE should spend its limited resources targeting employers who exploit wage and hour laws.
Asked about the mayor's plea, Chertoff gave no indication that Villaraigosa would get the review and revision of ICE's enforcement priorities he is seeking.
"I would be delighted to see Congress give us a way to bring workers in legally," Chertoff said. "Those workers would then be able to address the economic needs of the city and they would do it in a legal way. But as long as the law is as it is, I will enforce the law as it is."
Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo said the mayor hopes to discuss the matter with Chertoff in person soon when he visits Washington.
Szabo emphasized that Villaraigosa "is not suggesting the secretary should not enforce the law; he's saying that the laws that we have are broken."
"In the meantime, we need to enforce the laws on the books in a much smarter way that targets those who are the greatest threat to the residents of this country," Szabo said.