WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Tuesday that tying green cards to immigration reform would be counterproductive, throwing cold water on a key piece of the framework put forward by the so-called "gang of eight" in the Senate.
"I think that once people really look at the whole system and how it works, relying on one thing as a so-called 'trigger' is not the way to go," she said at a Christian Science Monitor event. "There needs to be some kind of certainty in the bill so that people can know when they can legalize and then when the pathway to citizenship, earned citizenship, will open up."
The framework of the bipartisan Senate group, which is aiming to release a reform bill next month, would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to begin only after certain border metrics were met. The senators have said such a policy is necessary both politically, to prove they are serious about border security, and in practice to ensure legalization is not followed by future swells in unauthorized immigration. So far, though, the group has not explained how border security will be defined or how long it might take until other measures, such as green card eligibility, can go into effect.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is not a member of the group, said in a speech last week that immigration reform should allow undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens, but also argued that changes should be coupled with strict tracking of border security improvements.
The Obama administration has not said President Barack Obama opposes the policy, although a plan he put forward does not include such a trigger. Officials have also stated that the border is more secure than ever and that significant resources are being devoted there already -- an assertion that is backed up by independent reports.
Still, Obama and Napolitano have said border security could and should be improved as any part of comprehensive immigration reform, and the secretary reiterated on Tuesday that they will do what they can to support the efforts of the bipartisan groups in Congress. Border measures should be coupled with employer enforcement, a streamlined legal immigration process and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, she argued.
"What I try to communicate when I speak with members of Congress is, look, border security is not somehow different from looking at the overall immigration system," she said. "They go together."
Though she wouldn't get into specifics about their work with the gang of eight, Napolitano said her department has provided lawmakers some information about their upcoming border security plans, such as a sector-by-sector approach that acknowledges the different needs of different regions along the U.S.-Mexico border. "What more could be done is to make sure those plans are filled out," she said.
Napolitano also cautioned against another commonly-used phrase in immigration reform: getting to the "back of the line" behind those trying to immigrate legally. The Obama administration has used the phrase as well, and Napolitano didn't argue on Tuesday that undocumented immigrants should be given a quicker path than would-be legal immigrants. Still, she pointed out that the "line" isn't easy to define.
"There's also talk about getting in the back of the line -- that's easier said than done," Napolitano said. "Calculating what the line is at any given time, it moves. So those judgments will have to be made."
Although such issues still need to be resolved, Napolitano said she is hopeful that immigration reform can pass.
"Four years ago when I started here and I went around the hill saying, 'Let's work together on immigration reform,' I didn't really get a positive response. ... It was like, 'We can't take on another big issue,'" she said. "I think now is the time. I think the election had consequences in that regard ... Am I optimistic? I'm always optimistic."