Gonzales used his appearance at the Commonwealth Club in Santa Clara, Calif., to talk up the Bush administration's reform proposals, which have been divisive even inside the Republican Party and have drawn bitter criticism from social conservatives who would prefer to focus on border security.
Kicking an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants out of the country is not something that can be "realistically" done, Gonzales said. Instead, he described what amounts to a version of limited amnesty: fines, payment of back taxes and Social Security taxes, with eventual citizenship as the reward.
"Most illegal immigrants who have been living and working here a long time have been productive and otherwise law-abiding members of our society," Gonzales said. "Allowing them a chance at citizenship is fair, but it must be earned, and the price of breaking the law must be paid."
The Bush administration has enlisted technology as another component of its immigration plan, with the president saying earlier this month that he'd like a "tamper-proof card that will enable our employers to be able to verify whether someone is here legally to do work."
Gonzales elaborated on Friday, saying "digital fingerprints, for example, could make an ID card tamper-proof. This would help enforce the law and leave employers with no excuse for violating it."
Currently it is illegal to hire undocumented immigrants, but document forgery and Social Security number misuse is commonplace. In addition, employers could be liable in civil suits if they reject someone who does in fact possess proper documents.
It's unclear whether Gonzales would require U.S. citizens to obtain national ID cards as well--after all, without such a requirement, illegal immigrants could simply claim to be citizens. One Republican proposalwould require precisely that.
Fearing a backlash from conservative constituents in the November election, House Republicans have mostly opposed Bush's plan and a similar measure in the Senate. One hearing Republicans organized this week, for instance, had this provocative title: "Should We Embrace the Senate's Grant of Amnesty to Millions of Illegal Aliens and Repeat the Mistakes of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986?"
House Republicans have been supported by groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates lower immigration and opposes amnesty.