Declaring success in border security and immigration enforcement, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Friday that the federal government has done its work and now it’s time for Congress to pass a broad bill to legalize illegal immigrants.
Her speech signals President Obama will make good on his promise to push Congress to pass an immigration bill next year - adding yet another hot-button issue to an already long and contentious list.
Ms. Napolitano said members of Congress and voters who balked at an immigration bill two years ago, fearing a repeat of the 1986 amnesty that only made the problem worse, can be assured this time is different. She said in those two years, the flow of illegal immigrants across the border has dropped dramatically and the government is doing more to catch fugitive aliens inside the U.S.
“The security of the southwest border has been transformed from where it was in 2007,” she said in a speech to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “The federal government has dedicated unprecedented resources to the Mexican border in terms of manpower, technology and infrastructure - and it’s made a real difference.”
But Republicans said her declaration of victory on border security was premature.
“How can they claim that enforcement is ‘done’ when there are more than 400 open miles of border with Mexico, hundreds of thousands of criminal and fugitive aliens and millions of illegal immigrants taking American jobs?” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
The number of illegal immigrants being caught on the border has fallen - a measure Border Patrol officials say means fewer are trying to cross - and Ms. Napolitano said the government has hundreds of miles of fencing on the border, has boosted the number of Border Patrol agents to 20,000 and has begun to deport illegal-alien criminals being kept in U.S. prisons and jails.
The number of illegal immigrants apprehended by immigration authorities is down from 1.8 million in 2000 to 556,041 in fiscal 2009, which ended Sept. 30, and demography experts say the number of illegal immigrants remaining in the U.S. has actually begun to fall.
Ms. Napolitano said both a slowing economy and better enforcement account for the changes, which she said creates a window for Congress to act.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, said Ms. Napolitano “contradicted herself by claiming the downturn in our economy has reduced illegal immigration but then advocated for an amnesty policy that allows millions of illegal aliens to take American jobs.”
“This is exactly the wrong time to be giving a pro-amnesty speech since we just received news that the national unemployment rate hit 10.2 percent,” Mr. King said.
Immigrant rights groups say they’ve changed the debate in Congress, and Ms. Napolitano said the attitude among Americans has changed as well.
But when it comes to actual votes in Congress, there hasn’t been a good test for some years, and earlier this year White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the “votes aren’t there right now” to pass a broad legalization bill.
Immigrant rights advocates said they’ll be watching to see how much muscle Mr. Obama puts behind the effort. Some have said Mr. Obama betrayed them by embracing E-Verify, the voluntary employee verification system, and revamping but not ending local police enforcement of immigration laws.
On Friday, though, groups said they saw a “real commitment” from Ms. Napolitano and the administration to try to pass a broad bill, which they argue would take care of many of the key problems that have led to stepped-up enforcement.
In 2007, President George W. Bush teamed with Senate Democrats and some Republicans to try to pass a bill that legalized most illegal immigrants, rewrote the rules for legal immigration and provided money for some border security.
The bill lost on an unusual majority filibuster that saw 15 Democrats and one independent join 37 Republicans in blocking the measure.
A year earlier, the Senate had passed a bill that had legalized some illegal immigrants, while the House passed an enforcement-only measure. Both bills died because they could not be reconciled with one another.