By Jordy Yager - 02/14/13 12:30 AM EST
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano insisted Wednesday that U.S. borders have “never been stronger” during a Senate hearing on immigration reform.
Facing calls from the GOP to crack down on the flow of illegal border crossers, Napolitano said Congress should pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul that strengthens security while also addressing the factors that entice people into the country.
“But too often, the ‘border security first’ refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems. 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.”
Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and John Cornyn (Texas) objected, saying that while border security has improved in recent years, the Obama administration has not done enough.
“I do not believe that the border is secure, and I still believe we have a long, long way to go,” said Cornyn.
Immigration reform legislation has emerged as a priority of President Obama’s second term. He has called on Congress to pass a bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants while tightening security along the border. He also wants an employment verification system that would impose stiff penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
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Napolitano argued that a comprehensive approach would bolster border security while making policy changes that deter people from trying to enter the country.
“We know the main driver of illegal immigration … is the ability to work, but we don’t have the tools to support the border with effective worker requirement and prosecution tools against employers,” she said.
“Improving the legal migration system so that people can get visas — they go through our ports, we know who they are, we know what their biometrics are, we know where they’re going, having an employer sanction system — will enable us to better focus on those who really are nefarious and are trying to do us harm.”
Many Republicans worry that Congress will repeat the same mistakes it made after passing the 1986 immigration reform bill, which included language aimed at tightening the border’s security, implementing tougher employment verification tools and creating a path to citizenship.
Congress failed to provide the necessary money and oversight to put much of the language in the 1986 bill into practice, and a flood of illegal crossings ensued.
In response, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama over the last six years have focused on securing the U.S.-Mexico border, asking Congress to appropriate billions of dollars to fund a team of aerial drones, 650 miles of fencing, and 1,200 National Guard troops — most of whom have since been recalled. The Customs and Border Patrol’s (CBP) budget and number of agents has nearly doubled.
As a result, Napolitano said, the number of border-crossing attempts has declined while the amount of drugs, illegal cash and weapons officials have confiscated has steadily increased.
But Cornyn pointed to a scathing 2011 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found that CBP had “varying levels of operational control” over only 44 percent of the nearly 2,000-mile border.
Napolitano disputes the GAO study’s methodology, contending that it looks at a narrow set of factors and that the term “operational control” does not accurately reflect her agency’s ability to stop people from illegally coming into the country.
The GAO defines “operational control” as “the number of border miles where Border Patrol had the ability to detect, respond, and interdict cross-border illegal activity.”
Under the immigration reform framework proposed by eight senators in January, the head of the DHS would have the final say on whether the border security requirements that Congress lays out have been met. The details of those requirements are under discussion.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is one of the eight senators working to craft the bipartisan bill, said on Wednesday that the group is still working to define what it wants in terms of border security.
“We have a ways to go on the border, and our group is working on that,” Schumer said. “We’ve made good progress. We have to make more.”
Napolitano argued that the Obama administration hasn’t tread lightly on immigration enforcement, pointing to the record 409,000 illegal immigrants it deported last year, about 55 percent of whom had pre-existing criminal records.
At Obama’s request, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is a part of the DHS, prioritized removing people with criminal — and often violent — histories over those who have not committed crimes beyond entering the country illegally.
Civil and human rights groups have objected to the administration’s increased number of deportations, and on Wednesday U.S. Capitol Police arrested a dozen protesters after they shouted over Napolitano, demanding that the administration cut deportations and focus on the human rights of illegal immigrants.
This story was posted at 12:28 p.m. and updated at 7:30 p.m.