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.