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Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 03, 2005 8:11 pm    Post subject: Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff Reply with quote

Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at the Houston Forum

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
Contact: 202-282-8010
November 2, 2005

Thank you. I want to thank Eddie and the Houston Forum for welcoming me here today. I would also like to thank Eddie, Marsha, and members of the Forum for being so accommodating of my schedule changes.

Houston has been in the national spotlight recently – and I’m not just talking about the Astros’ memorable season. Instead, I’m talking about the way the city of Houston in particular and the entire State of Texas answered the call to help your fellow Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Your generosity and compassion in helping those who were displaced by Katrina will long be remembered.

Even as we have dealt with one of the most active hurricane seasons on record, we have continued to deal with a range of other pressing priorities. Today, I am here to talk to you about one of the most important – and most urgent – priorities this nation faces: the security and safety of our borders.

The challenge of our borders is relatively simple on paper. We must allow legal travelers and legal cargo in, and we must keep illegal and potentially dangerous people and cargo out.

That simple equation is complicated by the sheer magnitude of the mission: securing 7,000 miles of shared borders with Canada and Mexico, inspecting thousands of tons of cargo, and processing over a million people a day – including many people in border communities who cross legally every day and contribute to the economic prosperity of our country and that of our neighbors.

How do you secure every square inch of 7,000 miles? How do you keep trucks moving briskly when there is the potential that one could contain a bomb? How do you swiftly process the million plus individuals who cross our borders daily for legitimate business and education purposes?

These are the questions that we have tackled, and we go forward now with the benefit of a considerable base of work that has been done since 9/11 to enhance border security and harden our ports of entry. We have significantly increased the number of agents and officers securing our borders and ports of entry, strengthened and consolidated inspections, expanded the terrorist watch list, created new screening and credentialing tools, and increased our enforcement capabilities.

Despite much progress, much remains to be done. Let me be clear to the people of Texas and other border states – we have a legal and civic obligation to the American people to secure our borders. Illegal migration is a severe and growing security threat. Illegal migration undercuts the rule of law. Illegal migration undermines our national security. And illegal migration imposes particular public safety and economic strains on our border communities.

To be sure, most of those entering our country illegally seek only a better way of life. But the fact that they can enter illegally is a serious vulnerability that must be addressed. Moreover, the manner of crossing – often in the desert heat, and at the mercy of smuggling groups – has dramatically increased the danger and loss of life to migrants themselves. This is a humanitarian problem.

And there is another challenge too. We have begun to make progress against the criminals and thugs who operate the human trafficking rings on our borders. But, as a result, we are beginning to see more violence in some border communities and against our Border Patrol agents as these traffickers – criminal predators – seek to protect their turf.

In short, we have a huge border and controlling it is a huge challenge – but the security of our country and the will of the American people require that we fix it. Let me be frank - the problem of illegal migration has been years in the making, and the solution will not happen overnight. But that is not a reason to delay action for time is not on our side. We must act thoughtfully and systematically – but also quickly – to address this complex challenge.

Today I want to lay out a plan for where DHS is going – a Secure Border Initiative that will ultimately represent a transformational approach to securing our borders from terrorism and reducing illegal migration.

But before I outline our vision, I want everyone in this room to know how committed the President is to solving this problem. Just a few days ago, when he signed the DHS appropriations bill, he said that it is his Administration’s goal to catch and remove every single illegal entrant caught at the border – with no exceptions. Those were carefully chosen words and the President meant each one of them. That’s why he told me that one of his highest priorities for DHS is to get control of the border and restore confidence in our immigration laws. And – I’m going to do just that.

At the direction of the President, we have already taken some important steps to secure our borders. My primary focus today will be the overall framework of the Secure Border Initiative – our vision for where we must go on border security over the next few years and beyond.

Simply stated, our goal is to gain control of our borders. I define control to mean that we will have an extremely high probability of detecting, responding to and interdicting illegal crossings of our borders. We cannot hermetically seal 7,000 miles of land borders and keep out 100% of illegal crossers. But we can create such a high likelihood of interdiction that it will have a strong and unequivocal deterrent effect on those who wish to cross illegally.

Gaining control of our borders requires focusing on all aspects of the problem—deterrence, detection, apprehension, detention, and removal. We will meet the challenges in each of these areas with an integrated mix of increased staffing, more robust interior enforcement, greater investment in detection technology and infrastructure, and enhanced coordination on the federal, state, local, and international levels.

And for a Secure Border Initiative to be fully effective, Congress will need to change our immigration laws to address the simple laws of supply and demand that fuel most illegal migration and find mechanisms to bring legal workers into a regulated, legal Temporary Worker Program, while still preserving national security.

We must strengthen security along our borders to prevent people from entering illegally in the first place. We will do this in several ways:

First, we must address the issue of personnel and ensure we have enough boots on the ground to carry out our security plans and enforce our policies. Last night, I went on patrol with some of the brave agents in the El Paso sector. Theirs is dangerous and difficult work. We must provide the manpower and resources they need to carry out their duties, and we are working hard to make sure they get them. I place special emphasis on the need to give them the means to protect themselves against violence from criminal traffickers.

We have already made progress. Since 9/11, yearly spending on border security has increased by $2.8 billion (60 percent). Recently, the President signed the DHS Appropriations bill which included more than $7 billion for Customs and Border Protection – the DHS agency responsible for the frontline of our borders. I thank Congress for its swift action.

With that money and other funds appropriated by Congress earlier this year, we have begun to recruit, hire and graduate 1,500 new Border Patrol agents. And with these new hires, we are on track to have increased our Border Patrol force by nearly 30 percent, close to 3,000 agents since 9/11. Later today, I will be addressing some of these new agents at their training academy in New Mexico.

The DHS Appropriations Bill also included roughly $3.9 billion for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a 9 percent increase over last year.

This increased funding will allow ICE to add 250 new criminal investigators to better target the human smuggling organizations and other criminal groups that exploit both our nation's borders and the migrants that they smuggle. It will also enable ICE to add 400 new Immigration Enforcement Agents and 100 new Deportation Officers.

In addition, with this additional staffing we will work to ensure that these key human resources are used most effectively. In this way, we’ll gain greater efficiency and effectiveness throughout the entire system.

Another crucial aspect of stronger border security is greater use of enhanced technology and infrastructure. As we are adding more agents to secure our borders, we must give them better tools to do their jobs. We will do this in two ways: by improving the technology they use and increasing our infrastructure assets along certain key points of the border.

Under our Secure Border Initiative, we will field the most effective mix of current and next generation technology and infrastructure with a corresponding mix of appropriately trained personnel. We will create an integrated border security system. We will seek new capabilities and place a premium on tested and proven technologies – particularly systems that have already been effectively field tested by our military and by the private sector.

Our goal is to ultimately have the capacity to integrate multiple state of the art systems and sensor arrays into one interoperable and comprehensive detection system. We want the technology in the air to be compatible with the sensors on the ground and to have all our systems work together, enabling our people on the ground to do their jobs more effectively.

One example. Building on the success of a recent pilot program, we recently obtained a Predator B Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to enhance our ability to secure the southwest border. Furthermore, we are taking opportunities to partner with the Department of Defense to adapt advanced but proven military technologies to help us with our mission.

DHS will also continue to apply proven tools to augment border infrastructure that have the highest-value near term payoff for improving border control.

In fact, we’ve already begun efforts in this area. In September, I authorized completion of the 14-mile Border Infrastructure System near San Diego – an essential task that languished for almost a decade because of litigation. We listened to concerns and moved forward in an effort to strengthen border protection in the San Diego area.

Let me be clear – we will not build a giant wall across our borders. But in areas where it makes sense to do so, we will look at physical infrastructure and technology improvements to deter illegal border crossings.

Second, we cannot have an effective border or interior enforcement strategy without an efficient detention and quick removal system. Our efforts to add border patrol agents and catch more migrants will be undercut if we turn around and release them.

Today, apprehensions of illegal migrants strain our capacity to detain and ultimately remove these individuals. As a result, those we apprehend have a good chance of being released with a notice to appear in court at some point in the future. Yet, once released many fail to appear when their court date arrives.

Through the Secure Border Initiative, we are tackling this problem by moving aggressively to re-engineer the removal process – a key enabler for greater border control. Let me give you an example. In FY 05 the Border Patrol apprehended about 160,000 non-Mexican illegal aliens along the southwest border. Because of strained capacity and inefficiencies in the removal process, 120,000 of these aliens were released with a notice to appear at court in the future. This “catch and release” process must change and it will. DHS has already begun implementing immediate actions to transform this from “catch and release” to “catch and return.”

For example, we have substantially expanded our detention capacity. The Homeland Security Appropriations Act for 2006 contained funds that will enable us to add nearly 2,000 new beds, bringing the total number of beds to about 20,000. This action alone, by enabling us to detain more aliens until removed, will allow us to remove thousands of illegal immigrants from our country.

I have also directed the expanded use of Expedited Removal to all Border Patrol sectors along the southwest border. This allows us to remove, quickly, eligible aliens, reducing the time required in detention prior to removal. We are working to reduce the processing time for aliens in Expedited Removal from roughly 30 days to 15 days.

Transforming our detention and removal system is an essential part of the Secure Border Initiative, and these and other changes will help us repair the current system. As a streamlined, more efficient system comes into fruition, we will change “catch and release” to “catch and return.” We will also be able to more effectively slow and reverse the number of absconders, devote more resources to removing criminal aliens, and get more aggressive in our approach to worksite enforcement. This will also have a significant deterrent effect – those who are considering entering the country illegally will be less likely to attempt to do if they are faced with almost certain apprehension, detention and removal.

Another aspect of our border enforcement strategy will be to expand the use of interior repatriation. Policies that simply remove aliens across the border encourage repeated attempts at illegal entry. However, removing aliens all the way back to their hometowns decreases the likelihood of a repeated attempt by creating logistics and economic disincentives.

Third, while a more robust detention and removal system, increased border patrol agents and better technology and infrastructure will mean greater border control, apprehension of illegal entrants is just the first step. As the President said, our goal is to remove every single illegal entrant - without exception. Through SBI, we will implement robust interior enforcement to uphold the rule of law and punish illegal workers and employers who hire them.

Though a large part of our interior enforcement strategy involves worksite enforcement, it is not limited to that. It includes more focused efforts that locate and remove criminal aliens, dismantle human trafficking and smuggling operations, all in addition to reducing document fraud at the worksite.

Criminal activity by illegal immigrants can also represent a severe security threat to our communities. Through initiatives like Operation Community Shield, which targets gang activity, we are identifying and incapacitating illegal immigrants who bring crime and violence to our communities.

Another aspect of interior enforcement strengthens our border security by targeting criminal groups that smuggle or traffic aliens – exploiting, and all too often robbing, abusing, and leaving for dead the very immigrants who hired them. These smugglers also traffic in guns and drugs, threatening the stability of our border communities and those of Northern Mexico. They have a direct nexus to our national security and public safety.

Effectively targeting these smuggling operations requires our renewed efforts directed at strengthening information sharing capabilities and the criminal investigation process, as well as continued collaboration with our Mexican, Central, and South American government counterparts.

Going forward, we are also teaming up with the Department of Justice to make necessary improvements to the adjudication process.

Strong worksite enforcement is vital to effective interior enforcement. We must be able to ensure that employees are in our country legally and are properly authorized to work. Enhanced Immigration and Customs Worksite Enforcement Units are focusing their efforts on investigations related to critical infrastructure, national security, and employers who violate our laws knowingly.

All of our border security efforts can be made more effective if we integrate our efforts with those of state and local law officials. I recognize the frustration that state and local law enforcement officials, particularly in border states, feel about the impact of illegal migration and I appreciate their desire for closer coordination with federal immigration enforcement agencies.

I am committed to promoting border enforcement task forces and to expanding the use of our existing legal authorities to train state law enforcement personnel. We have already begun to use our legal authorities to authorize state corrections officers to identify, process, and begin removal procedures on incarcerated criminals before they are released. This means that convicted illegal migrants can be deported directly from state prisons without delay in processing. We will build on successful pilot programs in Alabama, Florida, and Arizona to enable us to get convicted criminals out of this country as soon as their sentences end.

The reality of international migration also requires collaboration with our international partners.

To return illegal migrants, we must urge foreign governments to help us move quickly to return their nationals in our detention facilities. We must insist that other nations safely and quickly repatriate their citizens back to their home nations at the same rate at which they are arriving.

Working with the Secretary of State, we are in the process of streamlining internal U.S. government procedures to cut days from escorted deportation. Because an overwhelmed removal pipeline is our most immediate problem – cutting even a few days from the average deportation will allow us to increase removals by thousands a year.

Let me also say a word about our productive cooperation with the Government of Mexico. Border violence and related criminal activity endanger U.S. and Mexican nationals alike; therefore, we need a shared approach to disrupting the criminal groups that perpetuate it. We have substantially advanced our efforts in this respect through the Security and Prosperity Partnership with Mexico and Canada unveiled earlier this year. Operationally, we have worked closely with Mexican officials resulting in several successful programs, one of which is the recently-launched “OASSIS” program – Operation Against Smugglers and Traffickers Initiative on Safety and Security. This program expands existing efforts against violent human traffickers through exchange of critical information, coordination of enforcement operations and joint targeting of cross-border criminal activity. Here too, there is much more that can be done, and we will continue to build on this partnership effort.

In the coming months, you will hear from us with a range of specific proposals – some that generate headlines and others that won’t – to put flesh on the bones of the Secure Border Initiative.

Without doubt, this initiative requires a concerted effort to get all of the pieces moving in the right direction. To ensure that these efforts are well coordinated, we have set up a special task force in a Secure Border Initiative Program Office – integrating experts and resources from across the Department of Homeland Security to focus on this important challenge. This effort will result in unprecedented unity of command and unity of purpose in looking systemically at the problems of our borders and in measuring our progress toward solving them. This effort will report to me through our new policy office – ensuring that it receives the full attention of the highest levels of the Department.

Our borders represent an enormous security challenge – as well as a vital economic lifeline. Securing them in the most effective and efficient manner possible is our goal. We know of the very real frustration that people in Texas and other border states have expressed about the state of border security. We have listened, we are responding, and we will do everything in our power to get the job done.

Once again, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before this distinguished forum and to be here in the great city of Houston.

Thank you.

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