By Susan Crabtree - 04/28/10 10:00 AM EDT
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) declared a comprehensive immigration bill dead on arrival if the government does not first do more to secure its borders.
Graham tangled with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during a Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday about the administration’s desire to pass an immigration measure this year.
“If immigration comes up this year, it will be absolutely devastating to this issue” and future passage of a comprehensive bill, Graham insisted. “Most Americans think we will have lost our minds if we move forward without securing our border first.”
Graham argued that the drug war raging at the Mexican border needs to be addressed first, then Congress can act. Right now, he said, the Senate lacks the 60 votes necessary to move forward.
“I believe we can do it by 2012 if we’re smart and address the big elephant in the room — the borders are not secure and there’s a [drug] war going on,” he said.
Graham has blasted Senate Democrats for pursuing a bill that would offer legal status to many unlawful immigrants, a move he dismissed as a “cynical political ploy” in a critical election year. Over the weekend, Graham threatened to withdraw his support for energy and climate change legislation if Democrats moved first on immigration.
Graham began work on a bipartisan immigration bill with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) last October. And, earlier this year, he urged President Barack Obama to use his bully pulpit to focus public attention on the need for a broad solution to the country’s immigration problems. After a protracted partisan battle over healthcare reform, Graham started signaling that the administration had used up too much political capital to tackle a contentious issue like immigration this year, especially at the expense of an energy and climate change bill.
If the climate bill is not placed before immigration, Graham argues, there’s no way either bill will make it out of the Senate, and Democrats will have squandered a rare opportunity to pass the legislation.
Despite Graham’s challenge, Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, stood her ground at the hearing, continuing to press Congress to tackle immigration — now.
“I would bet you everything I own that Congress needs to take up comprehensive immigration reform,” she countered, throwing Graham’s own words back at him.
“I say this again, as someone who has walked that border, ridden it, flown it and driven it,” she said. “I believe it is as secure as it ever has been.”
The question Congress and the government need to ask is whether the border will ever be secured to anyone’s satisfaction and whether the “goalposts are going to keep moving,” Napolitano said. She also said the government has more security officers stationed along the southwest border than ever, an increase of 80 percent since 2004.
The exchange occurred against the backdrop of a national debate over a new Arizona law requiring state police to determine whether people are in the United States legally if there is a reason to suspect they aren’t.
The law, scheduled to go into effect in 90 days, after the close of the state legislative session, if there are no legal challenges to it, would require immigrants to carry their alien registration documents at all times in case they are asked to present them.
In response to several questions about the new law, Napolitano, who twice rejected similar legislation when she was governor, said she and other administration officials have “deep concerns” about it and the Department of Justice is considering its constitutionality.
“We have some deep concerns with the law,” she said, because it could drain resources from law enforcement efforts against those “committing the most serious crimes.”
Graham said he too had constitutional concerns about the Arizona law, suggesting its passage was an act of desperation.
“Look what good people will do when they are under siege” and “afraid of an out-of-control border,” he said.
Napolitano put the blame squarely on Congress for failing to pass an immigration bill that would fix a growing problem.
“[The Arizona law] signals a frustration with the failure of Congress to move,” she said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Judiciary panel, argued that the country has for too long looked the other way when it comes to enforcing immigration law, sending a confusing message to those entering the country.
“We need to make sure the world knows that our border is no longer open,” he said. “That if you come here illegally and get by, you will not be able to be employed … it’s a lose-lose game for you.”
Even some Democrats expressed concern about the worsening situation at the Mexican border despite the increased resources the U.S. government is spending to try to stop the violent crime associated with drug cartels as well as human and drug trafficking.