Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Creating a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would help law enforcement officials focus on those who pose the greatest security threat, said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
At a Senate hearing on plans to rewrite U.S. immigration law, Napolitano fielded questions from Republicans on whether the Obama administration was doing enough to secure the border with Mexico.
Pressed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, Napolitano said establishing a path to citizenship would keep Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials from having to concentrate their efforts on otherwise law-abiding individuals.
“It takes out of the enforcement area those who have longstanding relationships with the country, who have been here for years, who are already working, paying their taxes and the like,” Napolitano said. “It allows us to focus enforcement resources on those who are here committing other crimes and who are really dangerous to our public safety and our security.”
The secretary’s comments followed President Barack Obama’s demand in his State of the Union address last night that Congress pass an immigration overhaul that increases border security and creates a road to citizenship.
“Let’s get this done,” Obama said. “Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”
Senate Democratic leaders have said passing an immigration measure before Congress’s August recess is a top priority. Democrats control the Senate 55-45. An immigration overhaul may face a rockier road in the Republican-controlled House, where a bipartisan group also is crafting legislation.
“Our window of opportunity will not stay open long,” Leahy said. “If we are going to act on this issue, we must do so without delay.”
Obama and a bipartisan Senate group working on immigration legislation have endorsed providing a way to citizenship for those who don’t have criminal records, have paid taxes, pay a fine and learn English.
The four Democratic members of the Senate group -- Richard Durbin of Illinois, Charles Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado -- met with Obama today to discuss their progress in advancing a bipartisan measure, according to a White House statement.
Widespread Republican opposition to a citizenship plan helped scuttle a 2007 effort to overhaul immigration policy. That opposition has lessened since the November election, in which Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Still, Republicans pressed Napolitano for assurances that more would be done to secure the border.
“You’ve got to have a secure border,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, one of four Republicans in the bipartisan Senate group.
Other laws would be useless if someone “can still walk across the street” to enter the country, Graham said.
The last major immigration overhaul, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status and created a market for fraudulent documentation. Illegal immigration soared, casting a shadow on subsequent efforts to legalize immigrants.
“We need to learn from our previous mistakes so that we truly don’t have to revisit the problem,” said Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican. “First and foremost, we need enforcement of the laws on the books.”
Grassley said the administration was turning “a blind eye to sanctuary cities,” referring to municipalities that don’t allow local funds to be used to enforce federal immigration laws. He said the U.S. should create a biometric tracking system to target foreign nationals who overstay their visas.
Republicans have said they won’t agree to a path to citizenship unless the U.S. first makes measurable increases in border security.
Napolitano said border enforcement is “light years away from what it was in 1986.” She said the number of border security agents rose to more than 21,000 from about 3,000, about 650 miles of border fencing was added, and the number of individuals removed from the country annually increased to about 409,000 last year from 25,000.
The hearing was repeatedly interrupted by protesters. Just after Napolitano started speaking, Capitol Police escorted about a half-dozen people shouting in English and Spanish from the packed room.
Later, three men wearing green placards that said “Migrant Justice” on their backs were removed after they stood up to make a silent protest, blocking audience members’ views of the proceedings.
Another issue that threatens to derail immigration legislation is Democrats’ endorsement of equal treatment for same-sex couples when one partner is from outside the country.
At today’s hearing, Leahy drew a firm line in support of such a provision, which Republicans oppose.
“Any legislation that comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee should recognize the rights of all Americans, including gay and lesbian Americans who have just as much right to spousal immigration benefits as anyone else,” he said.
The Judiciary Committee may begin considering immigration legislation next month.
A Washington Post poll conducted Jan. 31-Feb. 10 showed that seven in 10 people surveyed said they would support a path to citizenship, including 60 percent of Republicans. Support dropped to 59 percent, and 39 percent among Republicans, when the same question was asked of a separate sample of respondents with Obama’s name attached to it.
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