Here are a few of my questions and Tony’s answers from this afternoon. You can read the entire interview here. The audio will be posted here later tonight. My first question concerns one of the key areas where the immigration law intersects with national security:
HH: Are young men who entered this country illegally, or who overstayed their visas illegally, whose country of origin was either in Central Asia or an Arab country eligible for regularization under this bill?
TS: Well, they would be eligible for regularization only if they met a whole series of standards. If they have broken the law while they’re here, they’re not eligible. If they do not remain continuously employed, they’re not eligible for regularization. If they do not provide, do not present themselves for a tamper-proof ID that has biometric information, submit themselves to background checks, they are not eligible for regularization. If they do not master the English language and culture, they’re not eligible for regularization.
HH: Now you mentioned background checks, Tony Snow.
HH: What kind? And who’s going to do them?
TS: The federal law enforcement…I’m sorry, the Department of Homeland Security and I think the FBI will be coordinating on those….
HH: But if it’s a profile along the lines of the 9/11 hijackers, none of whom had had a previous run-in with the law, but all of whom had jihadist connections. They’d be waived through, right?
TS: Well again, let’s see, let’s walk through. No, because at least in one of those cases, you’d had, maybe in a couple of them, you’d had expired student visas, which are going to themselves be subject to far more scrutiny. And in terms of background checks, I’m going to have to go back and find out whether they kept their noses clean or not.
TS: But if you’re asking me, Hugh, if it’s going to be possible using immigration law to find out whether somebody has not previously broken the law, whether they are going to commit an act of terror, whether they are an American citizen or not? No, that’s not going to be what immigration law is about.
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HH: But what I’m saying is if there are in fact hundreds or thousands of jihadists who have come here illegally, across the border or via visa overstays, that this law makes no provision for a special category of men, young men, originating from these countries. They’re going to be waived through. And so while immigration not may not…
TS: Well, wait a minute. What do you mean by waived through?
HH: They’re just getting in the same line with the decent, hard-working Mexicans.
TS: No, no, again, let’s step back here. What you’re doing is conflating two separate programs.
HH: No, that’s not true, Tony, because in law enforcement, you will…
TS: Well no, it is true.
HH: This law will end up adding to the cover of any sleeper. It has to.
TS: Well, no, what it does, in point of fact, Hugh, is something that the law doesn’t now do, which is to provide a comprehensive rendering of the folks who in fact are on our shores. And what it also does is gives us a greater ability to track and know who’s here, and therefore if you have actionable intelligence, much greater ability to go after these folks. So no, I strongly dispute the characterization here. What we have is the situation right now where you’ve got millions in the shadows, you don’t know who they are, you don’t know whether they have real or illegitimate ID. All of a sudden, if you’ve got tamper-proof identification that does have a biometric marking, it does make it possible for you to go through and do some analysis, whether it is using Interpol data, or FBI data, or any other data. These all get put into the database, and therefore, you still have greater capability, not merely on the basis of physical evidence that you now are going to have, that you do not presently possess.
HH: But all of a sudden, you’re also…
TS: You’re going to have that ability. And furthermore, you’re going to have the ability to track them, because you will have background checks, you will have requirements for continuous employment, you’re going to have employer reports, and so therefore, you’re going to have a much better sense of the whereabouts of such individuals.
HH: But you’re also going to legitimize their presence in the country. And if they’re good, Tony Snow…
TS: No, no…
HH: If they’re good at doing what they’re supposed to do, which is infiltrate, they will be here as long as is necessary, until they’re activated.
TS: But again, what you’ve just done, what you’re creating is a straw man here.
HH: No, I’m not.
TS: What you’re saying is…
HH: Tony, that’s not fair, because if they’re here illegally, they cannot function above board. Once they’re blessed, they will function above board, and the law does not make provision…
TS: Well no, wait a minute. What you’re saying is…I love the way that you slam this. They’re blessed? What you’re trying…what I’m telling you, Hugh, is that you appear to be advocating for a system right now where we don’t have any idea who the hell these people are…
HH: Not true.
TS: We don’t have any way of going after them.
HH: I want a provision that treats…
TS: And what we’re doing is we’re creating an inventory where you’re going to know who’s here illegally, and furthermore, you’re going to have unprecedented ability to try to focus in on those who are going to be subjects of concern. You’re also assuming that there is a complete disjunction between law enforcement activities and intelligence activity in this new database, which gives you much greater ability to figure out who these folks are. Far from being a blessing, this is an identifier, which I think is the sort of thing that you and I both would want to have.
HH: Which agency is actually going to do the background checks on the 11 to 12 to 20 million people who will be eligible? Which agency?
TS: Again, I have not looked at it, but I am assuming it’s a combination of DHS doing the coordination along with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, but people will find out.
HH: And how many people, how many people do you think it’s going to take to do 11…I’ve had three full field background investigations, each one of which took about six months. You know the drill on this. You know that there is not anywhere near the number of federal employees available to do a sophisticated search of 11 to 12 million people.
TS: But what you’re also saying is that you’re advocating a full field investigation on 12 million people.
HH: No, I want to find the people we should be worried about from a national security standpoint.
TS: Exactly, exactly.
HH: But we’re not going to be looking, because you don’t identify by country of origin in this law, do you?
TS: No, but what you do have is the ability, Hugh, once again, is to figure out who’s involved. And frankly, if you start taking a look at the evolving nature of the terror network, and this is interesting, because notice what we’re doing is we’re stepping away from the merits of the immigration proposal, and we’re talking about the complexities of doing counterterrorism, which is riveting topic, but not necessarily the chief area of focus when it comes to the immigration law.
HH: How many miles of fence, Tony, will be built and in place, double fencing, real fencing, not virtual fencing, before the first new visa comes out for these people?
TS: 370 miles.
HH: Where will those be built?
TS: Right now, I can’t tell you exactly where they’re going to be built, but what we’ve got right now is we’ve got 112 down right now, in terms of fencing.
HH: Double fencing? Or is it…you’re not counting the speed bumps, are you?
TS: No, we’re not counting the speed bumps. There’s 78 miles of speed bumps, the vehicular…actually, 59.6 miles of speed bumps, and 78 miles of vehicular barriers.
HH: So 78…
TS: And what they’re required to have, what they’re required to have by the end of fiscal year 2008, September a year from now, 370 miles of fencing, not fake fencing, not pseudo fencing, fencing, along with 200 miles of vehicle barriers, as well as 18,000 border patrol agents hired, 70 ground-based radar and camera towers, four unmanned aerial vehicles, along with support systems so that you can get at them, a lot more in terms of the mileages, special roads that gives you ingress and egress into tough areas and so on. That is required before you start the possibility of temporary worker program, or any of that other stuff. So all of that has to happen before you kick in the other elements of the plan. You see, we do agree with the idea of security first. Furthermore, the law written last year remains fully in effect. I know that Duncan Hunter was worried that they’re watering down his requirements. No, that law remains entirely in effect. But this is the baseline requirement before you get to the temporary worker program and all that stuff.
HH: Why didn’t the administration insist on the full 854 miles of last year’s bill prior to initiating the regularization of the millions of…
TS: Okay, there are a couple of things. First, regularization, again, keep in mind, when you talk about regularization here, you’re still talking eight years down the road, which means by that time, you will have all that mileage, you’ll have it completed. We’re talking about trying to lay on, let me do my math here, another, well, basically, another 248 miles worth of fence in the next 12 months, next 15 months. So the fact is, it’s going to get built.
HH: But why did the administration agree to cutting it in half, when they had the leverage, they could have gotten the whole thing.
TS: It didn’t. It did not agree to cutting it in half. That’s one of the great falsehoods here. What is says is this is a benchmark. You’ve got to get halfway, you have to demonstrate you’re busy doing this…
HH: I understand, I understand the administration’s position that the rest will get built. Why did the administration agree to do anything prior to the whole fence getting built?
TS: Well, because at this point, what you’re still talking about is putting together a system that is another eight years in coming. At this particular point, I think what you have to ask yourself is, what is most essential in terms of guaranteeing border security? And although the fence is important, if you don’t have anybody to patrol it, and you don’t have the technical means and the other stuff at that juncture, the fence isn’t going to do you much good. It’s going to be an architectural curiosity, rather than something that is actually going to be an effective way of policing the borders.
HH: Tony, I don’t find that persuasive.
TS: So what we’re doing here is we’re setting priorities in terms of what is going to be critical first. And so, Hugh, my sense is that we have already demonstrated with increased border presence that there has been a reduction in crossing, and there has been success. So our view is do you want to wait forever in doing this? Or do you want to get about the business also, while you’re dealing simultaneously with the borders, the folks that may be trying to come over, don’t you think you need to grapple in a very real and serious way with 11 or 12 million people, some of whom you are afraid of, rightfully so, that have terrorist connections? Why don’t you get after the program also of making sure we identify them, and start getting all the security aspects of that part of the program as well?
HH: Because we could do both. I’m not persuaded by your answer, because you could do both, and the administration could have had the 854 miles built.
TS: Actually, I don’t think you could get a bill in two years. I mean, I just think as a practical matter, and as you also know…
HH: Then we shouldn’t start regularization until three years.
TS: We’re not…will you stop this? The regularization doesn’t even…you’re talking about something that doesn’t begin for eight years.
HH: Tony, they’re not leaving the country, so you’re leaving them in place, and it doesn’t fly to say that they are leaving the country, or that there’s something other than…
HH: Now why the jam down? Why does it get one week of debate in the Senate? Why can’t they wait at least until the Senators come home over Memorial Day to hear the outrage in their constituents’ voices?
TS: It’s not a jam down. I think you understand the rules of the Senate, which is that what they’re really talking about, this is not a jam down. What they’re going to do is they’re going to have a motion to proceed next Tuesday, which opens up debate, but also Senate rules are such that you’ve got almost an infinite ability to go ahead and do amendments, and furthermore, you’re going to have a full debate in the House of Representatives.
HH: I don’t care about the House.
TS: I understand the importance…what you do have, and by the way, this is not highly unusual.
HH: Oh, it is.
TS: A lot of times you will have a…
HH: Tony Snow, come on.
TS: No, no, I’m serious about this.
HH: The most important law of these two years, with a massive impact upon the United States, is going to get five days of debate in the Senate, and you’re saying that’s not unusual?
TS: No, what I’m telling you is the kind of effort that went in at the front end, in terms…
HH: In secret.
TS: The administration…
TS: A lot of activity, a lot of people working on both sides, that quite often happens in crafting legislation. There’s going to be plenty of time to debate this.
HH: Tony, no there’s not. Tony…
TS: And what you’re talking about…
HH: It’s a week. That’s the Senate’s declaration.
TS: No, this thing, look, this thing could very well get held over longer. As I’ve said, you’ve got the ability on the Senate floor to do infinite amendments. I’m not sure that anybody’s nailed down what the rules are going to be. And as you know, people are going to want to take a good look at it, and it does go to the House of Representatives, too. This is not something where we’re going to have a magic wand, and the bill suddenly becomes law. And again, I look forward to your having a chance to look through it, because I think you’re probably going to have a lot more positive sense of it than your original take.