Two Republicans who helped write the Senate’s immigration bill said Tuesday that they are convinced it will finally be able to get a handle on the porous southwestern border — but acknowledged it could mean problems for American workers.
Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, said they fear that foreign workers will be more attractive to hire than Americans for some companies because the foreigners won’t be eligible for the same health care benefits.
“I think it’s a problem. I don’t know what else to say,” Mr. McCain told a questioner at a forum on immigration sponsored by the Arizona Republic newspaper and KPNX-TV, both based in Phoenix.
Mr. McCain and Mr. Flake were two of the eight senators who wrote the immigration bill that cleared the Senate on a bipartisan 68-32 vote in June. Since then, they have been defending the legislation from attacks from within their own party.
They said that they are convinced the bill will strengthen security along the border with Mexico, and that a key part is the addition of more border fencing. Their initial bill didn’t mandate additional fencing, but that requirement was added on the Senate floor, pushing the Homeland Security Department to construct full pedestrian fencing along another 350 miles of the southwest border.
The forum featured questions from the audience, including one from a tearful Sue Krentz, whose husband was killed on their border-region ranch in 2010, and who pleaded with the two lawmakers to finally get a handle on the situation.
“We have paid the ultimate price of their negligence in securing the border,” she said, urging the two senators to focus on enforcing existing laws rather than pass new ones “no one follows.”
Mr. McCain said this time would be different.
“Her family is a victim of a terrible tragedy of a shooting and a murder, and that is obviously something that is unacceptable in America,” he said. “These measures that we have in this legislation, we believe, will prevent another tragedy such as you have experienced.”
While illegal immigration has become a major political issue for the entire country, it has long been a hot-button issue in Arizona. Five years ago, President Obama even tapped then-Gov. Janet A. Napolitano to come to Washington to head the Homeland Security Department.
On Tuesday, Ms. Napolitano delivered her farewell address as she prepares to leave early next month, and she said one of her disappointments was that Congress has yet to pass a bill to legalize illegal immigrants.
She said she was proud of the steps she was able to take unilaterally to revamp her department’s priorities for whom gets deported.
“We instructed our immigration agents and officers to use their discretion under current law to not pursue low-priority immigration cases, like children brought to the United States illegally by their parents — children brought here through no fault of their own and who know no other country as their home,” she said.
Mr. McCain and Ms. Napolitano have repeatedly battled over the way she has run her department and whether she is doing enough to combat illegal entries in the Southwest.
Mr. McCain, though, said his distrust of the Obama administration isn’t a reason not to try to pass an immigration bill now.
“If you use that logic, which people are saying, ‘Well, don’t pass legislation because the president won’t enforce it’ — then let’s not pass any laws,” he said.
He said going forward, Congress and the courts will pressure the administration to follow through on new laws.