Elizabeth Sullivan / Cleveland Blog | August 22, 2008

Chertoff, homeland security chief for the last 3½ years, expects to leave at the end of the Bush term.

That sense of urgency, he made clear, extends to his agency’s controversial crackdown on undocumented workers through workplace arrests and a more concerted attempt to go after employers who connive in hiring fraud.

The trouble is, the little fish — the workers — are the easiest ones to sweep into the net, and that’s exactly what’s been happening in Ohio and across the nation. That, despite Chertoff’s pledge the agency is trying hard to build criminal cases against employers, in part by dipping into the playbook he helped write years ago as a New York Mafia prosecutor.

Yet, Chertoff suggests, that’s the point of the crackdown — to counter public cynicism and suspicions about immigration reform by showing that the government is serious about enforcing both the nation’s borders and its laws.

It’s easy to see the former lawman in the 54-year-old Chertoff, an intense, staccato talker who arrived at The Plain Dealer with a small army of Secret Service agents.

He has drawn controversy for his earlier roles in the Bush Justice Department, where he helped draft the tough USA Patriot Act and reportedly was one of those who signed off on a legal interpretation that set the stage for harsh interrogation techniques against al-Qaida suspects.

Yet credit Chertoff for passion. As the administration’s point person on failed immigration reform, he understands better than most how much the fortunes of America rise or fall on our continued willingness to embrace immigrants who invigorate the economy and keep it growing. That’s a deep truism based in history as well as today’s global realities that too many Americans who are little “p” protectionists against immigrant workers fail to grasp.

Chertoff says if he were to do comprehensive reform again, he’d leave out the idea of a “path to citizenship” for illegal workers that offends many Americans’ idea of fair play, and replace it with a path to a temporary working visa.

He might be on the right track with that idea. What’s wrong is the notion that Americans can be weaned from deep fears about immigrants by arresting the dishwashers and busboys and a few of their employers. That’s simply a recipe for extending the cynicism.


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