Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano told lawmakers Wednesday that the southwest border is more secure than ever and warned against holding legalization hostage to more border security — prompting a key Republican to warn the Obama administration that it is endangering chances for a bill this year.
Ms. Napolitano, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the Border Patrol has been beefed up, hundreds of miles of fencing have been built, and her department is deporting a record number of illegal immigrants.
She said those efforts will ensure there is no repeat of 1986, when amnesty was supposed to be coupled with better immigration enforcement, but the government didn’t follow through.
“Immigration enforcement now is light-years away from what it was in 1986,” she said.
The state of border security is a giant factor in this year’s debate, disputes over which helped scuttle an immigration bill in 2007.
This time, the plan emerging in the Senate would grant illegal immigrants immediate tentative legal status but would withhold green cards — the key intermediate step on the path to citizenship — until the border is secure.
Ms. Napolitano pushed back against that, saying that the entire problem must be addressed at the same time.
“Too often the ‘border security first’ refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems,” she said.
But Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is considered a key to the ongoing negotiations over an immigration bill, said making citizenship dependent on border security is not negotiable.
He also said it sounded like the Obama administration was laying land mines in front of the bill.
“If we are going to pass bipartisan immigration reform this year, the administration must accept the principle that security triggers must be met before anyone who is currently undocumented is allowed to apply for a green card,” he said in a statement. “By continuing to oppose a key security principle with bipartisan backing, Secretary Napolitano and this administration appear to be laying the groundwork to scuttle the bipartisan effort in the Senate.”
Hours later, Mr. Obama huddled at the White House with the four Democratic senators who are working on the bipartisan framework.
In a statement afterward, the White House said Mr. Obama “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.”
Ms. Napolitano’s testimony led off an emotional hearing. She was interrupted several times by protesters angry over the record rate of deportations under Mr. Obama.
Minutes after she testified, the committee heard from another panel of witnesses that included Jose Antonio Vargas, an illegal immigrant who testified alongside an immigration agent.
“I come to you as one of our country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of us Americans at heart but without the right papers to show for it,” Mr. Vargas said. “Too often we’re treated as abstractions, faceless and nameless, subjects of debate rather than as individuals with families, hopes, fears and dreams.”
In winning re-election last year, Mr. Obama triumphed over Republican Mitt Romney, who laid out the toughest immigration policy of any major party nominee in history. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, campaigned on a promise of legalizing the 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S., and Hispanic voters turned out for him in overwhelming numbers.
Stung by those results, many Republicans have concluded that they must join Mr. Obama in his immigration efforts this year.
But others aren’t convinced that the country can succeed at legalizing 11 million people without inviting another wave of illegal immigration — which is what happened after the 1986 amnesty. That experience weighed heavily on senators.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who opposes Mr. Obama’s call for legalization, said that “1986 is so fundamental. We need to see, the American people need to see a real commitment.”
Ms. Napolitano said that since 1986, the Border Patrol has grown sixfold, fencing has grown from a few miles of chain-link fence to more than 600 miles divided between pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers, and annual deportations have grown from 25,000 to more than 400,000 in 2012.
If Congress wants to increase enforcement, she said, it should come from the Interior Department, which could prevent businesses from hiring illegal immigrants.
All sides agree that jobs are the magnet that draws most illegal immigrants to the country.
House Republicans have signaled that they would like to look at the immigration issue in pieces — though Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said last week that he supported at least legalizing young illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.
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