WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano attempted on Wednesday to veer the debate on immigration from the border to interior enforcement in an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Napolitano asserted that the border is more secure than ever before and noted that the current administration has deported record numbers of people. However, she said, the border shouldn't be the only focus of illegal immigration enforcement spending.
Napolitano spoke as a representative of the administration, making the case that Obama's team has handled immigration as well as they could so far, but now an overhaul of the system is needed. When it happens, she said, it needs to be with the understanding that the border isn't the only problem. In fact, the border may not be as important as stopping employers from attracting undocumented immigrants into the United States, she said.
"We're all living in a fiscally austere world, and we have a responsibility to invest dollars to where they have the most benefit," she said. "I think, as the secretary, I would advise the committee that those enforcement efforts are better spent in the interior of the country," she continued, adding that border provisions are still needed.
The secretary faced a panel of senators on Tuesday, who ranged from saying that there have been too many deportations of non-criminals to accusing the Department of Homeland Security of offering amnesty. Napolitano's speech was interrupted three times by protesters, who were escorted quickly from the room. Twelve of the protesters were eventually arrested, according to the Capitol police.
It was otherwise a mostly cordial hearing, but one line revealed just how frustrated Napolitano seems to be with attacks on Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
When asked why morale of ICE agents is low, she said it may be because criticism makes their job among the hardest in law enforcement.
"It doesn't surprise me that their morale is low," she quipped to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
Sessions has opposed a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States, including by expressing skepticism to a plan put forward by the Senate "gang of eight." He is among the Republicans who are not convinced by the administration's record deportation figures, and told Napolitano so.
"I truly believe had this administration done a better job of enforcement, been more effective in moving forward with a lawful system of immigration, you would be in a much stronger position with the American people to ask for a more broad solution to the problem," Sessions said to Napolitano. "I think that's the fundamental question."
Napolitano defended the existing policies, but also said that more could be done, particularly to ensure that employers cannot hire undocumented immigrants. She told the senators that worker verification, such as the E-Verify program that screens for unauthorized applicants, is "essential to immigration reform."
She asked them the group to consider whether they want the border to be their top priority, given the resources already devoted there.
"One way to look at it is, if we have extra money to invest in immigration enforcement, is it better spent on more border patrol agents -- we could always hire more border patrol agents, we could always have use for that -- or is it better spent on investing in a worker verification program that really looks at the demand side of this issue?" she said.
The "gang of eight" plan would tie green cards to border security metrics, a trigger that would prevent immigrants from moving beyond provisional legal status until certain standards are met. At the same time, though, it would put other reforms into place.
President Barack Obama hasn't said a trigger is necessary, but he has called for more border enforcement. Napolitano agreed on increased enforcement, but questioned the idea of a trigger -- at least in name.
"A trigger implies that you don't get to these other things until X is met, when in fact these all have to be looked at simultaneously," she said.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of four Republicans in the "gang of eight," said he understood her point, and would like to work with Napolitano on ideas to improve border security. The gang's plan would require the homeland security secretary, whomever it was, to make the final call on whether the border was secure enough to move forward with the pathway to citizenship.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another member of the group, asked for an inventory of what could be done on border enforcement. But he, like Flake, emphasized that more needs to be done.
"I agree with you that you could build a 100-foot-high wall, and if you're getting a job pretty easily on the other side of the wall, people are going to go under it or over it or around it," Graham said. "So really E-Verify, controlling employment, is a virtual fence all of its own."
The hearing touched on a number of other immigration concerns. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the committee, and Chris Coons (D-Del.) called for equal treatment of same-sex couples in immigration law, while Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked about family reunification.
Later, undocumented activist and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who leads the Define American group, gave an emotional speech calling for reform. His words were met with applause from people watching in the back of the room -- the one interruption that Leahy didn't stop.
"Let's remember that immigration is not merely about borders. ... Immigration is about all of us," he said. "And before we take your questions here, I have a few of my own. What do you want to do with me? For all of the undocumented immigrants who are actually sitting here at this hearing, for the people watching online ... what do you want to do with us?"
Regardless of continued conflicts, Napolitano and many of the senators said they were optimistic about the chances for reform.
"Have you ever seen a better opportunity than the moment that exists today to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would prevent a third wave?" Graham asked Napolitano.
"No," she said. "This is the moment."
UPDATE: 3:35 p.m. -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) accused Napolitano later in the day of hurting reform efforts with her comments on the trigger in the "gang of eight" plan.
“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," Rubio said in a statement.
"Secretary Napolitano’s refusal to accept this bipartisan principle at today’s Senate hearing is discouraging for those of us who are serious about permanently fixing America’s immigration system," it continues. "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.”