Gutierrez: No immigration bill ‘terrible for national security’

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Photo Caption: Benjamin J. MyersCommerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Photo Caption: Benjamin J. Myers

Along with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has been the Bush administration’s voice in an immigration debate that has divided Republicans.

Gutierrez, a Cuban immigrant who became chief executive of Kellogg’s, said this week in an interview that he’s not disappointed by Republican opposition to the immigration bill, and that he hasn’t seen evidence that Democrats want to withhold a victory for President Bush.

Gutierrez repeatedly framed the debate as a national security issue, predicting victory in part because of the “inevitability” of immigration reform.

Q: If the Senate doesn’t approve a comprehensive immigration reform bill next week, do you think reform will be put off for years? Is this a subject too difficult for a new president to take on?

A: If the Senate doesn’t approve, I think it’s terrible news for our country. Next year is a presidential election year, so I don’t think it will be taken up then. It’s very difficult to know if it will be taken up by the next president. The advantage we have today is that we have a president who wants to take on this issue, and he wants to take it on now, and I just can’t see the country living with the status quo four more years. That would be terrible for national security, terrible for our economy, terrible for our society.

Q:  How do you respond to those who argue the U.S. should be securing the borders first?

A:  Securing the borders is one part of the challenge, but it’s a very one-dimensional view of a very multi-dimensional problem. Yes, we must secure the border, but we must also have an employee verification system. In order to have an employee verification system, we have to register the workers. In order to register the workers, we have to have them come out of the shadows. The whole thing ties together.

Q:  Has it been disappointing that some of the opposition to the president’s bill has come from his own party?

A:  I’m actually very encouraged that this has started out with a group of Republicans who saw the need to fix the problem. This isn’t going away. I think there’s an inevitability about this bill because we need the national security, we need the jobs to grow our economy, and we need to give some stability to our society.

Q:  How damaging was the passage in the Senate of an amendment that cut the number of temporary workers allowed to the U.S. in half? Is 200,000 workers a year enough to fulfill the needs of businesses?

A:  We don’t believe so. Our estimates are that our economy needs approximately 400,000 to 500,000. We chose 400,000 for a reason. It wasn’t a number that we just picked out of the air. If the number is too low, then we are creating a vacuum of demand that cannot be supplied through legal means.

Q:  As tough as this has been in the Senate, do you think it’s going to be even more difficult in the House?

A: It could be. The House is going to be very difficult. But I believe that the logic is compelling. I believe that there is an inevitability about immigration reform, and because it is a national security imperative, we will get passage in the House. Even though it’s difficult, I do believe this is a time of extraordinary leadership. And we’re seeing some extraordinary leadership in the Senate. We know that there are members under pressure, and they are standing up because we have to do this.

Q: Why do you think some people are so opposed to any immigration reform?

A:  It’s hard. I don’t want to ascribe sentiments that are in people’s minds and in people’s hearts. I know that this is a very emotional issue. What we’re tying to do is get people to realize that this problem is more complex than one word. And you can’t just dismiss a very complicated issue and a very serious issue with the word “amnesty.” We could be arguing about the meaning of amnesty for the next 10 years and have a very insecure environment in our nation. I think that’s wrong.

Q:  Do you ever think that you’re seeing any signs of veiled or unveiled racism against this bill?

A: I haven’t seen anything that would be that obvious or clear. This isn’t the first time that we’ve had highly charged, highly emotional debates about immigration. We had them at the turn of the last century with Europeans — Italians, Greeks. We had them in the middle of the 19th century with Germans and Irish. We’ve always had these debates. The great thing about our country is wisdom and American values have always prevailed. That’s been the reason the country always has the energy and vitality to keep growing and to keep flourishing and to remain prosperous.