Napolitano tells senators that immigration bill will improve security

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told senators Tuesday that comprehensive immigration reform legislation will make the country more secure, prompting skepticism from Republican lawmakers. 

Napolitano told the Senate Judiciary Committee the legislation would “absolutely” improve the security of the nation’s borders. 

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Republicans say the bill gives Napolitano too much discretion in judging whether a strategy to secure the U.S.-Mexico border is adequate, a prerequisite to enacting provisional legal status for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally. 

“Yes, we’ll have more identifications, more metrics, more biographic review, not just against law enforcement holdings but [National Counterterrorism Center] holdings,” Napolitano testified on Tuesday. “So it increases security in that end.” 

She said giving illegal immigrants provisional legal status would also make them more likely to cooperate with police to solve a variety of crimes. Many immigrants in the country illegally who witness crimes are afraid to come to the police because of fear about being penalized for their status. 

Republicans say the bill’s broad delegation of authority to Napolitano, or a future secretary of Homeland Security, to determine when to trigger the pathway to legal status, as well as when to waive rules blocking immigrants who have committed crimes, is shocking. 

They say it reminds them of the nearly 1,700 delegations of authority the 2010 Affordable Care Act made to the executive branch. 

“I’m concerned that the bill provides unfettered and unchecked authority to you and your department and your successors,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top-ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel. “On almost every other page, there is language that allows the secretary to waive certain provisions of law. The secretary may define terms as she sees fit.”

Republicans are balking over provisions in the legislation granting Napolitano authority over as much as $6.5 billion in spending with little accountability to Congress. 

“She can excuse certain behavior, determine what documentation or evidence is acceptable and exempt various criminal actions as grounds of inadmissibility,” Grassley said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the bill gives Napolitano too much authority to waive a variety of provisions in the law. 

“I’m concerned about the waivers and discretion,” he said. “I think Congress should accept the responsibility for setting the standards ourselves instead of delegating it.”

Some conservatives are mulling an amendment to the bill that would give Congress authority to vote on whether the border security goals of immigration reform have been met before illegal immigrants are put on a path to permanent legal residency. 

The legislation requires Napolitano to develop a comprehensive border security plan and southern border strategies before illegal immigrants can receive provisional legal status. 

Immigrants could apply to adjust their status to permanent legal status after the secretary of Homeland Security certifies that several security conditions have been met. These include certification that the southern border strategy is substantially deployed and operational, that the southern border fencing strategy is substantially completed, that a mandatory employment verification system has been implemented, and that an automatic system for tracking visas has been established at air and sea ports. 

“These things are all tied to certain metrics — you could diminish the significance of those trigger points or those conditions if you give excessive discretion to the secretary,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said.

A Senate Republican aide said the Department of Homeland Security has built only 36 miles of the 700-mile double-layered border fence Congress mandated in 2006. 

Congress later passed a bill giving the secretary of Homeland Security discretion to decide what fencing requirements were appropriate. 

Much of the fencing along the southwestern border consists of vehicle barriers and single-layer fencing.

Republican skepticism about Napolitano’s ability to secure the border was heightened by her admission that her department was aware of Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia but apparently failed to alert the FBI.

Tsarnaev, who died after a shootout with police Friday, took the trip a few months after the FBI interviewed him because of a tip from the Russian government that he was linked to radical Islamist groups.

The FBI was not aware of Tsarnaev’s six-month trip to a volatile region of Russia plagued by Islamist violence because an airline misspelled his name on a flight manifesto shared with the U.S. government.

Napolitano confirmed to Republicans Tuesday that her department was aware of Tsarnaev’s departure from the country but said the FBI had closed its investigation of him when he returned.

“Yes, the system pinged when he was leaving the United States. By the time he returned, all investigations — the matter had been closed,” Napolitano told lawmakers.

Napolitano’s response raises questions about the cooperation between the FBI and the Homeland Security Department in tracking legal residents suspected of links to terrorist groups.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the authors of immigration reform legislation, said the bill would reduce the chances of law enforcement officials missing a trip by a person suspected of links to terrorist activities by phasing out manual inputs of travel data.

“Under our bill, everything would have to be passport or machine read so that type of mistake could not occur. So if our bill were law, it’s a pretty safe guess that the authorities would have known that Tsarnaev left to go to Russia and when he came back,” said Schumer.

Napolitano reiterated there was “a ping on the outbound” alerting her department of Tsarnaev’s departure.