June 15 (Bloomberg) -- The Senate should reject an amendment offered by Republican Senator John Cornyn that would block a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants until the U.S. has “full operational control” of its border, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.
“Disconnecting the border from everything else that’s immigration related is really the wrong way to go,” Napolitano said of Cornyn’s measure during an interview on “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend on Bloomberg Television. “Some parts of the border are very sparsely populated, hardly ever trafficked, and we don’t need the same amount of technology and manpower there.”
The Cornyn amendment, which would complicate the pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, threatens to unravel the immigration bill being considered by the Senate. Napolitano, a former Democratic governor of Arizona, said the legislation already has “very, very good” border security provisions.
Democrats insist the amendment from Cornyn, a Texan and the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, would set such a high bar for the triggers that would allow undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship that it would effectively halt the process.
Some Republicans, including those who helped craft the bipartisan bill under debate, say they won’t support a broad re-write of the nation’s immigration laws without tighter border security. The Republicans are concerned that without improved border control, the legislation would spur a wave of illegal immigration similar to one that followed the last major policy revision in 1986.
Senators in both parties are planning to meet through the weekend to craft possible changes to the bill’s current border security provisions. New York Democrat Charles Schumer and Arizona Republican John McCain, two of the eight senators who wrote the bill, said members of the bipartisan group were discussing possible changes among themselves and with other senators.
Cornyn’s proposal would require the Homeland Security Department and the Government Accountability Office to certify the “full operational control” and “full situational awareness” of the border before undocumented immigrants could gain permanent legal residency.
Under the amendment, government auditors would have to certify surveillance on 100 percent of the 1,969-mile U.S. border with Mexico and would need to verify that 90 percent or more of the people attempting to enter the U.S. illegally in the preceding year had been turned away.
Cornyn said his amendment would “strengthen” the existing bill and improve its chances in the Republican-led House.
The amendment would make it “more likely, not less likely, that we will actually pass a bill that will be taken up by the House of Representatives and eventually be presented to the president for his signature,” Cornyn said in Senate floor remarks on June 10.
Democrats have argued the expanded surveillance and enforcement required by 134-page amendment may create a lengthy delay in the provisions allowing undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. to apply for citizenship.
“I don’t think that’s the best way to do anything at the border,” Napolitano said.
The debate in the Democratic-controlled Senate is occurring as a bipartisan negotiating group in the House is working on its own immigration proposal, with plans to present it later this month. Separately, the House Judiciary Committee is considering measures to address aspects of immigration law, including the flow of agricultural and high-skilled workers.
Napolitano, a top member of President Barack Obama’s national security team, also defended the administration’s oversight and use of classified surveillance programs, while calling for more transparency in their use. That includes a dialogue about whether to make public rulings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, she said.
“On some of them that discussion needs to be had, yes,” Napolitano said.
The Obama administration has confirmed the existence of a program compelling Verizon Communications Inc. to provide the National Security Agency with data on all its customers’ telephone use.
The administration also has confirmed the existence of a separate program, called Prism, which monitors the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks.
The disclosures, made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, sparked a criminal investigation by the Justice Department, calls for the surveillance to be reined in and a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union accusing the government of violating citizens’ privacy. Snowden, 29, fled to Hong Kong May 20 before revealing himself as the source of the leak.
Napolitano also addressed the Homeland Security Department’s use of drones -- an issue that has raised privacy concerns among lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill.
Napolitano, 55, said the operation of unmanned aircraft and other air coverage makes “our forces on the ground more effective,” and that privacy concerns are regularly weighed and addressed by an office embedded within the department.
“We are constantly making sure that we are abiding by restrictions and doing what we need to do from a border security perspective without invading American’s rights,” she said.
Napolitano called for an open dialogue on the type of information collected by the federal government.
“There needs to be public understanding and a public dialogue about what kind of information we use, why it’s necessary to protect Americans and how we make sure that Americans don’t live in an Orwellian situation, which I think is everybody’s fear,” she said.
She also said Snowden’s disclosure “raised my eyebrow” on the “unfettered access to certain types of information” given to some federal contractors.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said this week that lawmakers will consider legislation to limit government contractors’ access to sensitive data in the wake of the NSA leak. About 1.4 million Americans held top-secret clearances as of October.
“I’m not sure that we’ve really addressed that fairly and squarely,” Napolitano said. “So obviously there will be lots of lessons learned out of this latest episode.”
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