Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano said Tuesday that the border is as secure as ever, but that there is no single way to prove it - an admission that could jeopardize the immigration talks on Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers say border security is their top priority.
Ms. Napolitano said her department has not developed the "border condition index" that it planned to put in place after it tossed out the previous yardstick - miles of the border under "operational control" - three years ago.
"That is a very difficult thing to do in any kind of statistically significant way," Ms. Napolitano told reporters at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
The lack of a clear measuring stick could trip up the bipartisan coalitions in each chamber that are working to come up with bills that would give a legal status to some or all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S. and reshape the rest of the immigration system.
As part of those talks, Republican lawmakers are demanding that certain benchmarks - or triggers - be met in areas such as border security before they push forward with plans to allow illegal immigrants to receive a legal status or a pathway to citizenship.
"It's no secret that the administration doesn't want real border security triggers in immigration reform," said Alex Conant, spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a member of a "Gang of Eight" senators negotiating the most high-profile bill.
"But the senators working on a bill agreed in January to have measurable security triggers, and the legislation will include real border triggers using measurable metrics. Sen. Rubio will not support any legislation that does not include real security triggers to make sure our borders are secured," Mr. Conant said.
The issue of border security helped sink a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007, and since then, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations dumped manpower, technology and infrastructure into the Southwest border.
Ms. Napolitano shrugged off the notion, embraced by many Republicans, that the nation will not have a clear grasp of whether the border is more secure until it adopts an official yardstick.
"We are confident that the border is as secure as it has ever been, but there is no one number that captures that," Ms. Napolitano said Tuesday. "That is the problem if you are looking for just one number. Border security encompasses a lot of different things, but as we look at managing the border what we are looking for is the ability to detect illegal persons and contraband coming across the border and ability to intercede."
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at the daily briefing Tuesday that Mr. Obama agrees that there are "a variety of metrics by which you can measure, and we do measure progress on border security."
"Border security is one of the key principles that the president has put forward that has to be part of comprehensive immigration reform," Mr. Carney said.
Rep. Candice S. Miller, Michigan Republican and chairwoman of the House's border security subcommittee, said that the need for Homeland Security to come up with an official yardstick is long overdue.
"The American people understand the need to overhaul our broken immigration system and are demanding that border security be a part of any solution," Mrs. Miller said. "The Department needs to stop telling the American people that the border is more secure than ever without the verifiable data to back it up, because its failure to provide a standard that the American people trust could scuttle the efforts of reform that we need."
The proposal that the "Gang of Eight" floated earlier this year calls for most illegal immigrants to get a legal status on Day One, but says that they cannot earn a pathway to citizenship until the border is proven to be secured.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, has put forward a proposal that calls for an independent auditor to evaluate whether the borders are secure and then have Congress vote on whether to accept that report.
Under his plan, illegal immigrants could earn "probationary status," but would not be given a special path to citizenship.
The movement comes after Mr. Obama won over Hispanic voters in a landslide in the 2012 election, promoting Republicans to rethink their approach to immigration.
"Four years ago, when I started here and I went around the Hill saying, 'Let's work together on immigration reform,'" Ms. Napolitano said Tuesday. "I didn't really get a positive response."
"I mean, there were two wars going on, we were close to a depression, health care was winding its way through Congress and it was like, 'We can't take on another big issue.' I think now is the time and I think the election had consequences," she concluded.
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