For years, the Republican base has demanded a more patrolled, better reinforced, and more secure border as a prerequisite to even discussing immigration policy. Janet Napolitano had a message for them at Wednesday’s Senate hearing: Congratulations, you won!
“Our borders have, in fact, never been stronger,” Napolitano testified.
Boasting of the “unprecedented progress we have made” in border security since the last immigration debate, Napolitano noted that the number of Border Patrol agents had doubled since 2004, border apprehensions had plummeted 78 percent from their 2000 peak, and a variety of new technologies had been deployed to stop illegal crossings. And net migration in recent years has been negative, meaning more people are leaving the United States than entering it.
“Speaking as someone who, as Arizona’s U.S. attorney, attorney general, and governor experienced the flood of illegal immigration in the early part of the century,” Napolitano said in her testimony. “That situation no longer exists.”
Napolitano argued that the biggest remaining danger to border security was the nation’s failure to address its 11 million undocumented immigrants. According to Napolitano, legalization of existing, law-abiding undocumented immigrants would free DHS to devote its full resources to tracking and removing known criminals and drug smugglers. An accompanying crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers would then “eliminate the main driver of illegal immigration: the desire to find work.”
In other words, spend all you want on more enforcement if you want. It still won’t do as much as comprehensive reform would in terms of actually improving border security.
“I think as the secretary, I would advise the committee that those enforcement efforts are better spent on the interior of the country,” she said in response to a question from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) on what it would take to get border crossings down to zero.
Republicans backing immigration reform have credited the improved border situation with helping build momentum for their reform efforts, but skeptics are concerned that an immigration bill will skimp on new enforcement mechanisms. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has championed a “trigger” for a path to citizenship only after new border measures take effect, has faced resistance from conservative commentators over the idea.
Some of these concerns were aired in the hearing. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) took issue with Napolitano’s characterization of the issue, saying “the border is nowhere near secure.” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said he feared that “you really mean we’re not going to have enforcement, but we got to have amnesty first” and complained about reports of low morale among ICE agents.
Napolitano said she favors further border security, but as she put it in her testimony: “too often, the ‘border security’ first refrain has served as an excuse for failing to address overall immigration reform.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.