WASHINGTON – The federal government will gain operational control of the Southwest border in 2008, two years ahead of schedule, thanks to $1.9 billion in extra money for enforcement and the deployment of National Guard troops to the region, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff pledged Thursday.

“Obviously there are, of course, unpredictable elements in this,” Chertoff told the House subcommittee that controls his department’s purse strings. “But I think the supplemental (funding) and the use of the National Guard in the intervening period of time really does give us a jumpstart in getting this done.”

While Chertoff sketched a rosy view of immigration enforcement developments at the border and inside the country, House appropriators were far more skeptical.

During the two-hour hearing, they grumbled about a lack of strategic planning, inadequate contractor oversight and delays in completing the US-VISIT program to track foreigners’ entry and departure from the country.

“If we’re ever going to someday get to a comprehensive immigration policy, you have to succeed first at a border security plan – and no one that I know really has confidence that you can do this,” said Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y.

Chertoff cited as evidence the 45 percent decline in border apprehensions, which suggests fewer illegal immigrants are trying to cross; rising worksite enforcement criminal prosecutions; and the addition of 2,000 detention beds in Texas within days. Those markers prove lawmakers don’t have to “take on faith the department saying, “We’ve got things under control,”‘ he said.

But Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, complained that Homeland Security sometimes turns a blind eye to reports of employers hiring illegal immigrants. State and local law enforcement often contact the department with tips of rogue employers “and they’re just totally blown off,” he said.

Though Chertoff stopped short of endorsing a new immigration proposal outlined this week by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, he did offer support for a key part of her plan: turning aspects of the guest worker program over to private employment agencies. The private sector, he said, can be more efficient than government at collecting applicants’ data, fingerprints, health information and other records.

“We would actually have to do the security checks ourselves and make the (visa) determinations, but in terms of just collecting data, you could have the private sector play a role in that,” he said.

The secretary renewed the Bush administration’s push for an immigration overhaul that pairs a temporary worker program with increased border security, saying “brute force” alone could not end illegal immigration.

But Chertoff warned Congress that it would take some time for the government to implement any temporary worker program or plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants.

“I don’t think we could open for business the day after Congress passed it,” he told reporters after the hearing. “We would need months.”

Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, argued that the government is far from ready to handle any increased workload caused by a sweeping guest worker program. “I personally think none of those areas are even close to ready,” he said.

House Republican leaders, hoping to make the case for their enforcement-only approach, announced 21 immigration hearings in 13 states during the August recess. The hearings are designed to spotlight what House leaders view as flaws in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill.

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