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White House Press Secretary Tony Snow on the new immigration bill.

Friday, May 18, 2007

HH: Pleased to welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show now Tony Snow, press secretary at the White House. Tony, how are you?

TS: I’m doing fine, Hugh.

HH: Good to have you. I heard you on Michael Medved’s show a little bit earlier today, so you’ve got the Salem Network covered. We won’t go back to the same subjects.

TS: (laughing)

HH: Tony, immigration…

TS: Yeah.

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: Wait, wait, wait. Mastering the English language? I thought that was for…

TS: Yeah, English language requirement’s a part of it, too.

HH: And what is that English language requirement?

TS: The English language requirement is to be able to speak and write coherently in English, and to pass a test that would demonstrate that. And I think also there is a citizenship test requirement.

HH: And so if, say, a Saudi got here in the last few years, but he’s been working, you know, continually for a relative, and has kept his nose clean, no run-ins with the law, and can speak passable English, he gets to stay?

TS: No. Well, he gets to stay…you’re conflating things, because you say if he gets to stay, that’s regularization, and they’re two separate issues, because the way the proposal works is that somebody who came here illegally, you are allowed to stay here for up to eight years, but only if you submit to background checks, you remain employed, and fulfill all those other conditions I told you. Plus, you pay a $1,000 dollar fine up front, which is a way of saying, acknowledging that you broke the law. This…all this eight years does is get you in a position where you then have to leave the country, and you can apply for the right to become a regularized citizen by getting a green card, and then proceeding through as everybody else does, the process of trying to become a citizen. So after eight years, you run out of options. You either leave, or you have to leave the country and still apply for the right to be considered for citizenship.

HH: Now you mentioned background checks, Tony Snow.

TS: Yeah.

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. Let me explain a very important part of this plan, which is that you have to have the tamper-proof ID with biometric information. You know, there’s a cottage industry in fake ID’s. You know it and I know it. You go to the convenience store, and they hook you up with the social security number of somebody who’s long dead, or maybe somebody who’s even alive, and they patch in a picture, and suddenly they pretend like you’re legitimate. There are a series of laws that have already made their way through that are going to require biometric information from everybody, real ID for U.S. citizens. And for those who are not citizens, or cannot provide proof of citizenship, they’re still going to have to provide, they’re going to have to submit for an ID card that will have a picture, that will have a fingerprint, and at the same time, also will have a valid social security or other identifying number. That goes into a federal database. Everything is cross-tabbed and checked to make sure that you’re not faking. So one of the first steps is you’ve got to present yourself. And then, based on that information, now you’re going to know who they are, where they work, you do the background checks. If you find a fingerprint, and it turns out that they’re somebody who held up a liquor store, guess what? You get kicked out.

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.

HH: Tony…

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. But on the other hand, there are other laws that this administration has fought hard to put into place, including the Patriot Act, including surveillance programs, that do in fact give you the data and the ability to track down whether it’s the Lackawanna cell or others. So I think what you’re trying to do is to set up here something that may be a little bit misleading, in the sense that you’re trying to place a burden on immigration law, that probably doesn’t properly belong there. But instead, what you have pointed to, is give me the chance to tout a law that’s been under feverish assault from the left, that has, in fact, been effective in saving lives.

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: Actually not, but that’s a long conversation about what’s in the law. But we don’t have the law, yet, because if in fact they provided…

TS: Well, the law I think is in. I’ve read what you’ve had and others…relax. It’s supposed to come out today. This is not a law that is going to be debated without having been read. I guarantee…and I’m looking forward to it, because I hope you will read it with the kind of care that you do. You’re legally trained. You’re going to have the ability to look at this, because I think you’re going to find that a lot of the arguments that have been presented against the law, in fact have no…are basically made up, or…

HH: Well, let’s test that, Tony.

TS: Or report people’s misgivings.

HH: Let’s test that. 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: Tony, they are…

TS: What I’m saying is that you’re going to have the ability to go in and take a look as carefully as you can. There are going to be ID checks and background checks, and all that, but you know what? We will get an opportunity to take a look at the law. And all I’m saying is, I want you to give it a chance and look at it with an open mind, because a lot of people have reached preemptory conclusions…

HH: I’m among them.

TS: …about a whole series of things.

HH: I’m among them, and I’m part of…

TS: I know you are, that’s why I’m making this mention, because I think when you see the law, I’m hoping you’re going to change your mind based on a fair reading of what’s gone into it.

HH: I think the administration can count on a fair reading of me, the only member of the blogger and talk radio Harriet Miers fan club, as far as I know.

TS: (laughing)

HH: So you can count on a fair reading from me. But there are some problems. For example, how much are the employers who cheat after this law is adopted going to pay for employing someone who didn’t have the right ID, and who did not have affirmative defense for the employer side? How much do they pay?

TS: Okay, number one, first, they have an affirmative requirement to go ahead and get this ID. First violation, $5,000 dollars, second, $10,000, escalating up to $75,000 per employee.

HH: And so $5,000 dollars per employee, and that goes in from day one?

TS: $5,000 first time. I’m sorry, what?

HH: And that goes in from day one?

TS: Yes.

HH: And so, if someone’s got thirty Mexicans working in their warehouse, and they’re not here illegally, $150,000 dollar fine hits them?

TS: If they’re not here illegally, they have not presented the proper kind of ID, they haven’t done, there are a whole series of things that the employers have to do. They have to do the verification. If they don’t have the proper verification, and if the employees have not presented that tamper-proof ID, with the biometric information, then that employer’s liable for a $5,000 dollar hit for each and every one of those employees.

HH: Okay, that’s a detail which was not out there. I’m glad to have that. 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…

TS: Well, wait a minute. Two things, you…let’s divide this into two classes. Number one, you’ve got some people who came here, they came here for jobs, some of them have sent their kids off to die in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of them have behaved like model American citizens would act if these folks were citizens. Then you have bad actors. What this law does is give us an unprecedented ability to week out the good and bad actors, and get the bad actors out of here for good.

HH: Tony, everybody…

TS: So I mean…sorry?

HH: Everybody knows the rhetoric by now, but you’re talking past the objection from the border security people who are not anti…I think you should let most of the 20 million stay here. I’d make it very easy for them to stay. But you guys caved on getting the fence built, and you do not have…

TS: No, we didn’t. No, Hugh, we didn’t. I mean, Jon Kyl…

HH: You don’t have a system in place to find the bad guys. You guys blew past this.

TS: No, wait. No, again, I think you’re creating a straw man. You are focusing on the architecture of the fence, and not paying attention to the largest expansion in funding and personnel, and everything else, on border security. I mean, this is something where you ought to be saying you know what? I’m glad these guys have stepped up, and you’re right. You’re right to be impatient, but there are also a number of huge complexities, including as you know, there are lawsuits now, in Arizona and Texas, where people are suing not to have fences put on their property.

HH: I agree, and that’s what I was coming to next is, does this bill have notwithstanding any other law language that will clear away any countersuit by environmentalists, such as are mentioned in Mother Jones, or private property owners who don’t want the fence?

TS: Well again, this is something…people do, the question here is whether you’re going to have an eminent domain proceeding, where you think that a fence is going to be absolutely vital for national security. I’ve not seen that part of it. So I don’t know. But what you’re asking me is the eminent domain question, and you and I, certainly when I was a talk radio host, when it came to the Kelo Case, we were screaming about property rights. And this is going to be a classic eminent domain, national interest debate…

HH: Now Kelo was the condemnation of a private home to give to a shopping center. This is the construction of a fence on the border. They’re not the same thing.

TS: No, I understand that, and what you’re going to find out is whether that in fact is, if that is essential for national security, then my guess is that you’re going to have a cause of action at the federal level. But I don’t want to pretend that I’ve seen that language, because I haven’t.

HH: I don’t want to keep you too long, Tony, but I’ve got a couple of more questions. You got any more time?

TS: Yeah, sure.

HH: Okay. How many miles of fence have been initiated and completed since last year’s bill was passed? Because in these numbers, I assume, I could be wrong, that there are fences that were built prior to the 2006 bill.

TS: I think that the vast majority of what we’re talking about here, let me just pull up, because I had somebody send me the data today. I think the vast majority of this is in fact, what we’re talking about is stuff that’s been put up in the last year.

HH: The 78 miles?

TS: No, the 78 is vehicular barriers. In other words, that’s berms, and I mean, I think you’ve seen the pictures of some of the vehicular stuff. I mean, I just apologize. I’m scrolling through. I’m away from the office, and looking on my Blackberry. Let me take a look here. My sense is, and I’ll have to go back and double check. I think in terms of the primary fencing, we’re talking about 89.9 miles. But rather than getting ahead of myself, I’ll go back and take a look and get a full accounting on that.

HH: And those 89.9 do include the fencing that was constructed prior to the…

TS: No, that’s what I’m saying. I’m going to find out. My understanding is that the majority of this we’re talking about is new fencing.

HH: Okay.

TS: But I don’t want to get over my…I don’t want to get on the air and have told you something that is misleading or inaccurate.

HH: Sure, I understand. Is there a website anywhere that charts the construction of the real fence?

TS: What happens is, I know that we get weekly reports on it, so I’ll try and find out.

HH: Can’t you get the government to put it up so the American people can see what’s going on?

TS: Hugh, I’ll find out. There may be good reasons why they don’t want to do some of this, and I just don’t know.

HH: Okay, last couple of questions, Tony Snow.

TS: Yeah.

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…

HH: Secret.

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.

HH: Listen, Tony, to what John McCain said yesterday in announcing this bill. He had a very important statement about what kind of look see they really want to have. Here’s John McCain.

JM: This is the first step. We can and must complete this legislation sooner rather than later. We all know that this issue can be caught up in extracurricular politics unless we move forward as quickly as possible. This is a product of a long, hard trail of negotiation, and I’m sure that there are certain provisions that each of us would not agree with. But this is what the legislative process is all about, this is what bipartisanship is about, when there is a requirement for this nation and its security that transcends party lines. I’m proud to have been a small part of it.

HH: So you have a secret deal that’s not yet even in print, it’s unveiled for five days of Senate debate, and the leading guy for the Republicans denounces as criticism extracurricular politics. Do you agree with him?

TS: No, you know what he’s talking about? You have so over-interpreted this. Oh, my goodness. What he’s talking about is in the context of the 2008 presidential campaign. What he says is, you’ve just described this as the most important legislative item in these two years. What he’s saying is let’s not screw around and wait another two to three years to do this. He was simply defending the fact that there may be provisions in there that one side or the other would find less than perfect, but that’s how compromise happens in legislation. Relax, this is not something…

HH: I’m not, Tony. I’m not going to relax, because the President…

TS: Okay, well then, don’t relax. But watch what happens. I mean, Hugh…

HH: Will the President support a delay of this bill in the Senate until after the Memorial Day recess?

TS: It’s not going to get done before Memorial Day. Come on.

HH: That’s what they were, Jon Kyl was talking about yesterday, that’s what John McCain’s talking about.

TS: No, what they’re talking about is trying to get a debate on the Senate floor. Memorial Day recess is in a week. You’ve also got the supplemental appropriation. The fact is, this is going to get careful consideration, including by you. I just really think on this one, you really are reading way too much into something that’s being done.

HH: Tony, if you can’t tell me who’s doing the background checks. Which agency with which funds, and how many people.

TS: Well, yeah, but you know what? I apologize.

HH: But it’s not in the bill. No one knows this. They’re just going to assume it’ll get done.

TS: Hugh, the bill text, we’re hoping is going to be up before the end of the day.

HH: And in that bill text, Tony Snow, on my last question…

TS: Yeah.

HH: If there is no mention of who’s going to do the background checks, and how they’re going to pay for it, given the overwhelming burden that these agencies already face, and their inability to cope with the laws that already exist…

TS: Get Chertoff on, because Chertoff’s the guy who’s done all the…

HH: We have tried to get Michael Chertoff. Again, the administration will not engage with its critics, Tony Snow.

TS: Oh, are you kidding me?

HH: You’re the only one.

TS: Are you kidding me? He got turned down on three shows yesterday, today, because they didn’t want to hear from him. I’ll work it for you, okay?

HH: I appreciate it.

TS: I’ll work it for you.

HH: Tony Snow, I hope you have a great time out with your band. I see you’re playing somewhere this week with whatever it’s called, Beats Workin’, but I look forward to discussing the bill with you once we actually have something to read.

TS: Good deal.

HH: Thank you, Tony Snow.

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