FEMA, Immigration Issues Reviewed in Mason ‘Conversation with Michael Chertoff’

Posted: April 28, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

In Thursday’s talk-show-style exchange with U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff, Mason’s Frank Sesno led off with some hard-hitting questions about the recent Senate report that called the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy” for its performance during last year’s Hurricane Katrina.

Sesno, University Professor of Public Policy and Communication, wanted to know whether Chertoff agreed with the report’s conclusions and whether he favored moving FEMA out from DHS control. Chertoff shifted some of the blame for poor performance to FEMA’s previous managers, saying, “These shortcomings were built up over decades.”

He also said he favored keeping FEMA under DHS, but with a director who would respect “the chain of command” and not act as former director Michael Brown did by trying to go directly to the president instead of Chertoff.

Frank Sesno and Michael Chertoff
Frank Sesno, left, University Professor of Public Policy and Communication, and Michael Chertoff, U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary, talked about FEMA and immigration issues at Thursday’s forum.
Photo by Nicholas Tan

Sesno asked Chertoff how well the agency was prepared to deal with the next hurricane season that begins June 1, and Chertoff outlined actions that have been taken to avoid some of last year’s missteps.

These include beginning the process of planning for the season earlier and “using what we’ve learned,” as well as improving the communication capabilities with emergency responders in the field.

But Chertoff stressed that localities and states have responsibilities in an emergency and that “first responders have to be ready and have to be full participants.” He also said, “Citizens violate their civic duty if they don’t follow an evacuation order.”

He made the point that most local authority rests with the governors of the states and said, “There are more than enough National Guard units to handle emergency situations. The National Guards are now better prepared than at any other time.”

Answering Sesno’s question about what the situation would be if another hurricane like Katrina hit New Orleans again this year, Chertoff acknowledged the city “could have a bad event” because repair on the levees is not complete.

On the plus side, however, he said, “There are fewer people [in New Orleans], they are more mobile and our preparations are better.”

Moving on to the issue of immigration, Sesno wanted to know what DHS planned after conducting its immigration raids last week that rounded up more than 1,000 illegal immigrants at employment sites around the country.

Chertoff responded that enforcement would continue and said, “We use all the tools we have.” These include fences and barriers in some cases, border personnel, helicopters, sensors and other technology and even horses to patrol inaccessible desert areas.

Chertoff said solutions to the problem of illegal immigration include better security at the borders, with more personnel, enforcement and a temporary worker program that would provide illegal workers with documentation.

Chertoff also said the raids were aimed at “employers who are flagrantly breaking the law and victimizing those people.”

Sesno moved on to a question about the country’s border with Canada and pointed out that crossing the northern border requires minimal identification. That led into a discussion about a national identity card that would replace passports and driver’s licenses.

Chertoff said he favored such a card, saying it would be “more convenient, biometrically based and secure.” But he warned that it would also be expensive and complicated to implement, requiring coordination with all the U.S. states and territories.

To wrap up, Sesno asked how long the secretary planned to remain at DHS. Chertoff responded, “As long as the president wants me, and as long as I can continue to contribute.”

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