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Attorney General Rebuffs Critics of President’s Immigration Plan

May 16, 2006 at 3:06 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Here now to react to that reaction is the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, who’s been listening along with the rest of us.

Where do you come down on the argument we just heard between the congresswoman and the congressman on this illegal part of the argument?

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: This is a very complicated issue. As many have said, it implicates economics; it implicates politics; it implicates security.

You know, the president has outlined five basic principles that he thinks comprehensive immigration legislation should include. There are many, many details to be worked out. And that’s what the legislative process is all about. And so we’re going to have a good, healthy debate about those details.

And I believe it’s critically important that we have legislation passed this year, because we’re really talking about the mass security of this country, and we can’t afford to continue to wait and wait just because it’s a difficult issue. It’s got to be confronted head-on. It’s got to be dealt with by the Congress so that we have legislation the president can sign sometime this year.

Protecting legal immigrants

Alberto Gonzales
U.S. Attorney General
[P]eople who have followed the law and are waiting patiently will not be adversely impacted -- and that those who have broken the law, have come here illegally and want to pursue citizenship... will have to stand in line.

JIM LEHRER: But speaking of head-on, we just heard a head-on discussion about a core element in this debate, which is the 11 million who are here illegally, how they should be dealt with. Congressman Tancredo says they're illegal; they should be dealt with as illegals. Congresswoman Sanchez says, no, they should be dealt with as people who are here and part of society.

Where do you come down?

ALBERTO GONZALES: I think we can have both.


ALBERTO GONZALES: They have to be dealt with compassion, and they are human beings and deserve basic respect. But they have -- they are here illegally, and the president is not advocating amnesty, that they should not suffer some kind of penalty. He is suggesting and recommending that there should be some adverse consequences to the fact that they came here unlawfully.

And one important component of what the president talked about last night that was not discussed in that exchange was the fact that people who have followed the law and are waiting patiently will not be adversely impacted -- they shouldn't be adversely impacted -- and that those who have broken the law, have come here illegally and want to pursue citizenship, that after they satisfy a certain condition that the Congress will work through and will be included in the law, that they will have to stand in line behind those who have not broken the law.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Tancredo said -- he said it two or three times, and many others said it today, particularly on the Republican side in the House -- that what the president outlined last night is essentially a path to citizenship, but it's amnesty. The end result is amnesty for having committed a crime by coming into this country illegally.

ALBERTO GONZALES: I respectfully disagree with the congressman. I would not characterize it as amnesty.

The fact that you may have broken the law, any law, wouldn't necessarily disqualify you from ever becoming a US citizen. And so the key here is whether or not there are adverse consequences to not having followed the law.

And what the president's proposing is a penalty of some type, which Congress -- we're waiting for the Congress to work through that. And, again, a very important component is that those who have followed the law not be hurt any way by the fact that those who have not followed the law and want to pursue citizenship then decide they want to pursue citizenship down the road.

JIM LEHRER: How did the president on one side and the conservatives within his own party get so divided so dramatically on this issue?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, this is a very important issue for the country. And as I indicated, it's a very passionate issue. Emotions run deep.

It's a very difficult issue, a very complicated issue, and I fear that this will not be resolved if the debate is not reasoned, if it's not respectful, and that's what the American people, I believe, expect of members of Congress and expect of this administration, because it is such a difficult issue.

We all agree that what is paramount is the security of our country. In a post-9/11 world, we have to know who's coming into America and why. And that's why the president led off his remarks last night to the American people by focusing on border security, because that is ultimately the primary objective here.

And the other components of what he talked about last night, the temporary-worker program, in our judgment is part and parcel and is essential to the ultimate goal of ensuring the security of our country.

The Guard issue

Jim Lehrer and Attorney General Gonzales

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of Congresswoman Sanchez's point that you want to do something with the border, sending the National Guard are the wrong people to send there. You heard what she said; how do you respond to that?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, the National Guard has been providing support on counternarcotics along the border for many, many years, so this is nothing new. They know how to be integrated with federal agencies; we've seen that.

So there is an infrastructure or process where that's worked in the past. And the National Guard will be there only in a supporting role to our Border Patrol agents.

She talked about not being adequately trained. Members of the National Guard are going to be experts or have expertise in certain areas. If they have expertise in surveillance, when they go down to the border, that's what they will be providing support: surveillance. If they have expertise in constructing roads, that's what they're going to be doing down on the border.

And so they won't be in a situation where we're bringing people down to the border with no kind of experience and then we have to spend time training them. They will have the expertise and experience that they can bring to this issue in a supporting role to the Border Patrol.

JIM LEHRER: What about Congressman Tancredo's point that he wants them to have technology, as well? Are they going to be specially equipped to deal with border stuff?

ALBERTO GONZALES: No question about it. We have been focusing on new technology for several years now, and we cannot be effective in dealing with the borders, the issues relating to border security, without taking advantage of new technologies, such as infrared cameras, such as sensor detectors, motion detectors, taking advantage of unmanned drones. So we have to take advantage of changing technology in order to be effective in securing the border.

Immigration as a new issue

Alberto Gonzales
U.S. Attorney General
The president has talked about the fact that six million people have, in fact, been detained and returned. Prosecutions relating to immigration-related offenses are up 40 percent since the president took office. And so we've made progress...

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Attorney General, let me ask you this. You've been with the president from the beginning of this administration. You haven't been the attorney general; you were with him at the White House.

Why has it taken the president and his administration over five years to come to grips with this problem of immigration to a crisis point where he addressed the nation about it last night? What's been going on these last five years?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, it's not like we just discovered this problem yesterday. Funding for border security has increased something like 66 percent since the president took office. The number of Border Patrol agents has increased something like 30 percent.

The president has talked about the fact that six million people have, in fact, been detained and returned. Prosecutions relating to immigration-related offenses are up 40 percent since the president took office. And so we've made progress, and we've...

JIM LEHRER: It's gotten worse, too.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, clearly more needs to be done, and we need to accelerate our efforts, and that's why the president felt it was important to go to the American people to lay out these broad principles.

It is important for the Congress to take action. Again, I can't overemphasize about how important it is for the national security of this country that we secure our borders.

JIM LEHRER: The reaction today, we saw some of it just now, and we had it also in Kwame Holman's piece in the intro to the two members of Congress, most of the opposition today to what the president proposes is coming from his own party. Do you have any evidence that anything the president said or is doing is going to pull those people where the president wants them to go on this?

ALBERTO GONZALES: I think we have to wait for additional time to see where the debate takes us. Again, the president has outlined five basic principles, but the devil is going to be in the details.

And I'm optimistic, I'm hopeful that we're going to get legislation that will be approved by the Senate. It will then go into conference, and then we can work something out so that a bill will be available for the president to sign sometime this year.

JIM LEHRER: And the president is comfortable with a position that is gathering more support from Democrats than it is his own Republicans?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, again, we have to see what the final legislation is going to look like, Jim.

Surveillance on phone calls

JIM LEHRER: All right.

New subject, finally, the NSA story. There was a report today -- we just had it in the news summary -- that Verizon denied that they ever gave any telephone records to the NSA. BellSouth did the same thing yesterday. Is there a program of the NSA putting together the data from telephone calls or isn't there?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Jim, you know, I'm limited about what I can say about the intelligence activities of the United States of America. I mean, the president has said that we don't engage in content collection of domestic calls without a court order.

I can say that all of the intelligence activities of the United States government are reviewed very, very carefully by lawyers to ensure that everything is done -- that is being done is being done lawfully, consistent with our laws and consistent with the Constitution, and that we have provided the appropriate briefings to members of Congress so that they are apprised of what we're doing.

JIM LEHRER: Is what Verizon and BellSouth said consistent with what you know about what the NSA is doing?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Jim, I'm not going to comment on that again because it would be harmful to the intelligence activities of the United States of America. It would make us less effective if I started talking about what the United States government is doing in order to secure information about al-Qaida, and that's what this is about.

What can we do to get information about al-Qaida? I don't care about what your neighbor down the street -- I don't care about your neighbor's phone calls regarding his daughter's wedding or about hair appointments. This is about communications involving al-Qaida. That's what we're focused on.

JIM LEHRER: So it remains confused now about whether this program exists or doesn't?

ALBERTO GONZALES: I'm sorry, but I can't confirm anything relating to the USA Today story, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Attorney General, thank you very much.