Chertoff acknowledged at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures that it will be a challenge for states to implement the so-called REAL ID Act, especially if they are not given more federal funding to do so. But he said he would not support legislative efforts to repeal the controversial law and insisted that insecure travel documents in the hands of terrorists are dangerous.
"I frankly will not support pulling the plug on this," Chertoff said.
Several states across the country already have decided not to comply with the law. The Homeland Security Department still has not issued final compliance regulations, but it has estimated that it will cost states about $23 billion to implement the mandate.
Chertoff said one of the reasons it has taken his department so long to issue guidelines is because it has been working to address state-level concerns about cost and privacy. But when asked if he thought Congress needs to fix some of the law's weaknesses through additional legislation, Chertoff said that the country can not afford for the REAL ID plan to be derailed.
"Anyone who believes the current system [of issuing licenses] is secure is kidding themselves," he said.
In recent months, states also have been acting independently on the immigration front. According to a report released by NCSL earlier this week, 170 immigration bills have been enacted so far this year in 41 states.
Chertoff lamented the demise of federal immigration legislation in the U.S. Senate this summer, which he said he hoped would have provided funds for the "back office" of the REAL ID plan. Attempts by senators to include additional REAL ID funding in the homeland security spending measure for fiscal 2008, which passed the Senate last month, also were defeated.
In a separate speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., touted recent efforts by Congress to bolster homeland security. She lauded the passage of legislation to implement the remaining recommendations of the panel that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks. The law, among other things, contains stringent requirements for screening cargo on ships and airplanes. It also directs funding to improve the emergency communications infrastructure used by first responders.
"Never again will the efforts of our courageous first responders be hampered by an inability to communicate in real time," she said.