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."
Cornyn then highlighted fiscal year 2012, when 683 illegal aliens from terrorist-sponsored and terror watch list nations were apprehended coming across the southwestern border.
"Well, Senator, obviously we want the border to prevent likely terrorists from entering our country. Everybody would agree with that," Napolitano said. "...So if we want to say, look, we want you to catch -- we want you to focus on terrorists, narco-traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, one way to do that, and really the only way to do that, is to take some of these others and focus on the legal migration system."
A Republican member of the Group of Eight working on immigration reform, Sen. Jeff Flake (R), took issue with Napolitano's statements.
“Despite the administration’s rhetoric, there is much more needed to secure the border, particularly in the Tucson sector,” said Flake. “Any definition of a strong immigration system must include border security, which is why making it a priority in the immigration bill being drafted is crucial.”
Over at the White House today, President Obama split the Group of Eight into four -- the Democrats who were part of the coalition that upstaged Obama's Las Vegas immigration reform speech by announcing their framework the day before.
Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), joined by Vice President Biden and senior staff, convened with Obama this evening. "In the meeting the president reiterated the key principles he believes must be a part of any bipartisan, commonsense effort, including continuing to strengthen border security, creating an earned path to citizenship, holding employers accountable, and streamlining legal immigration," said a readout from the White House.
"The President also expressed his belief that continuing to strengthen our borders and creating a path to earned citizenship that ensures everyone plays by the same set of rules are shared goals and should not be seen as mutually exclusive," it continued. "The President thanked the Senators for their work to date and told them that while he was pleased with the progress, he expects the process to continue to move forward and stands ready to introduce his own legislation if Congress fails to act."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Napolitano that it's time to fix the system "with the goal in mind that there will be no third wave of illegal immigration."
"To put it in context, we're not being overrun by Canadians, are we?" he said.
"Not as far as I can tell," she responded.
In the Senate today, Republicans not waiting for the Group of Eight -- if not permanently fractured by Obama -- were introducing their own bills that tackled bits and pieces of reform.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a bill that would allow dairy workers, sheepherders, and goat herders to apply for year-round farmworker visas without providing a path to citizenship, and another bill to eliminate the per-country cap on high-skilled immigrants.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) introduced a package of bills that included the elimination of birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants (co-sponsored by Lee and Arkansas GOP Sen. John Boozman), prohibiting federal funding for sanctuary cities, preventing illegal immigrants from claiming the Child Tax Credit, and making voting a deportable offense for illegal immigrants.
“Acknowledging a need for immigration reform is one thing, agreeing on enforcement seems to be a completely different story,” Vitter said. “While the rift continues amongst the Gang of Eight on enforcement, I’m working on a few targeted reforms that could help solve our illegal immigration problem and avoid amnesty by putting enforcement first.”