Napolitano: 'Our Borders Have Never Been Stronger'

Even a Republican involved in drafting the bipartisan framework for immigration reform took umbrage with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's assertion today that the southern border is more secure than ever.

"Now, I often hear the argument that before reform can move forward, we must first secure our borders. But too often, the border-security-first refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems," Napolitano told the Senate Judiciary Committee today at a hearing on immigration.

"It also ignores the significant progress and efforts that we have undertaken over the past four years. Our borders have, in fact, never been stronger."

Securing the border before providing a path to citizenship is the main sticking point between the Obama administration and the Senate agreement. President Obama's plan has no such requirement.

Napolitano argued that the best way to slow border traffic "is through common sense immigration reform that strengthens employers accountability and that updates our legal immigration system."

"Now, I've also heard the refrain that any attempt to provide legal status to the undocumented immigrants already in our country would simply reward law breaking and constitute amnesty," she said. "Deporting 11 million people is not just impractical and cost prohibitive, it runs counter to our values. It would break apart families, hurt our economy and create labor shortages in critical industries."

Napolitano further argued that a comprehensive immigration bill is essential for law enforcement, because "having a large group of illegal, undocumented immigrants creates many problems for law enforcement and for our communities."

She said the results of 1986 amnesty wouldn't happen again because "immigration enforcement now is light years away from what it was."

"I think in 1986 there were a couple of miles of fence along the entire southern border and it was basically chain-link fence," the secretary said. "In 1986, the then INS removed I think about 25,000 individuals from the country. Last year, we removed 409,000."

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told Napolitano that the American people saw the administration's position as "we're not going to have enforcement, but we've got to have amnesty first."

"It sounds so much like before, where a group of special interests meet at the White House and you had some of the big businesspeople and you had the agro people and you had the immigration activist people," Sessions said. "But I didn't see the Border Patrol there. I didn't see the ICE representative, the law enforcement officers there. And I didn't see the American people's real interests being represented there."

He noted that Immigration and Customs Enforcement now ranks 279th out of 291 in federal surveys of employee morale.

The president of the ICE union, Chris Crane, told a House panel last week that agents there believe "death or serious injury to ICE officers and agents appears more acceptable to ICE, DHS and administration leadership than the public complaints that would be lodged by special interest groups representing illegal aliens." The union has also filed suit against the government alleging that the administration is blocking agents' ability to enforce the law.

"They get criticized because we're deporting too many people," Napolitano said. "…Then they get criticized for not deporting everyone who is here illegally. It doesn't surprise me that their morale is low."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) noted a 2011 Government Accountability Office report estimating the government catches about 61 percent of those who cross illegally.

"Do you consider that a record to be proud of?" Cornyn asked.

"I would characterize it as one of the many numbers that float around when the term border security is used," Napolitano responded. "…It's GAO so you have to presume it's going to be negative because that's their job is to find out things that are wrong."