In defending President Bush’s so-called “guest worker” program for illegal aliens – which critics have dubbed an amnesty program – Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says it’s just not practical to deport the millions of foreigners in the country illegally.

“The cost of identifying all of those people and sending them back would be stupendous. It would be billions and billions of dollars,” Chertoff told Sean Hannity on the Fox News Channel program “Hannity & Colmes” last night.

“One of the reasons I think that we’ve been focusing on the idea of a temporary worker program as part of a larger strategy for border security is because it would be a way to siphon off people who really want to do nothing more than work here, put them into a regulated program – we would know who they are – we would then be able to send them back at the end of a period of three years or six years. They would have made some money, they could take it back home, and then we could focus our other resources on the people that don’t want to do it the right way, and we could get those people sent out.”

Hannity challenged Chertoff, saying such a plan rewards those who “didn’t respect our laws and sovereignty.”

Asked the talk-show host: “Why don’t we say, no, you’re here illegally, you didn’t respect our laws, you ought to go home?”

Chertoff again appealed to the issue of cost, saying, ” Sean, you know, it’s really an issue of practicality. I mean, as a practical matter, we’ve got to identify these people and pull them out of the shadows.”

The Homeland Security chief emphasized that Bush’s plan “is not an amnesty.”

Said Chertoff: “The president’s proposal is not a path to citizenship. It’s clearly temporary, and it clearly envisions people who would have to commit to go back. … What this would let us do is acknowledge the reality that we’ve got hundreds and thousands of employers all over this country who are employing illegal aliens. Sometimes, individual citizens employing people in their home.”

When Hannity suggested quadrupling the number of Border Patrol agents to help deal with the flood of illegals coming across the southern border, Chertoff pointed to training constraints.

“Right now, our capacity for training really is fully stretched,” the official said. “Because it is obviously not an easy job, to train a Border Patrol agent. It’s very dangerous work on the border.”

Chertoff emphasized that since 9-11, the number of Border Patrol personnel has increased by 3,000.

The homeland security chief said he believes there will be a point in the future – using new technology and infrastructure, and more agents – when the border will be impenetrable.

“I think we have a day coming,” he told Hannity. “I can’t give you dates. It is not going to happen overnight.”

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