Chertoff said the government has "no other choice" but to develop a legal channel that will match willing migrants with U.S. employers in order to relieve the strain on the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau. House Republicans in particular are bitterly divided on whether border security reforms should include a temporary worker program.
"If we don't have a temporary worker program, I think it's going to be extraordinarily difficult to ask our Border Patrol agents and our ICE agents to stem the tide that is driven by a huge economic engine of employers looking for people who can work [in jobs that] won't be done by Americans," Chertoff told reporters during a briefing on the administration's Border Security Initiative.
About 80 House lawmakers -- most of them Republicans -- wrote President Bush a letter in October saying they will be opposed to a temporary worker program until current border laws are enforced.
Another side of border security, which has attracted less attention in recent weeks, entails punishing employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
"The employers are driving the demand," Chertoff said. "Employers, by giving jobs to illegal migrants, are causing illegal migrants to come and stay."
Chertoff said the government has an obligation to give employers "a convenient, efficient and secure way to validate and verify that they have migrants who are temporary workers." On the flip side, he added, employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers should be penalized.
The Homeland Security Department plans to announce new regulations aimed at helping employers verify the workers' identities, Chertoff said. Currently, companies can use the Basic Pilot Employment Verification Program. But the program is voluntary and has been criticized for its reliance on old and inaccurate databases.
Chertoff said DHS needs to examine whether employers should be required to do background checks on workers.
"We're looking at the whole system," he said, "and I can predict in the next weeks you're going to see a number of regulatory and policy changes that will be designed to do two things: make it easier for employers to verify employment but also say that if you don't verify employment, there's going to be tougher punishment and quicker punishment."
Critics argue, however, that ICE is understaffed and lacks the resources for effective worksite enforcement. The department primarily has been focused on enforcement operations at critical infrastructure sites, military bases and airports, they say.
"I think there's a lot of lip service in this town about solving this problem," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council. "I see no willingness on the part of this administration to be serious about this. They're talking as though the guest worker program will solve all the problems. If that were the case, no one would be crossing the border right now because everyone who wanted a job would already be in the country."
Another possible measure might involve requiring migrants to return to their home countries in order to collect benefits from their employment in the United States, Chertoff added, without elaborating.
But he said DHS does not support building a physical wall along the border. Such an effort would be "phenomenally expensive, wouldn't be particularly effective" and would still need to be backed up with technology and agents, he said.
"You could say in some ways we're going to have a virtual fence, because we're going to use a mix of technology and Border Patrol and infrastructure to create what is in effect a barrier to entry," Chertoff said. "But it's going to be a smart fence, not a stupid fence."