Napolitano: Border Security Trigger ‘Not The Way To Go’ In Immigration Reform

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano rejected the idea Tuesday that the federal government could treat a single metric of border security as a trigger that opens a pathway to citizenship in comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

At a breakfast roundtable with reporters in Washington, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Napolitano acknowledged that creating a border security metric with real statistical value is an enormous challenge, and that allowing said metric to determine when undocumented immigrants could take steps toward naturalization would create too much uncertainty for people and families already in the country.

The development will alarm conservative immigration reform supporters in the House and Senate who have identified a border security metric as one of three key elements they’d need to see in comprehensive legislation in order to earn their support.“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,” Napolitano said in response to a question from TPM. “There needs to be certainty in the bill so that people know when they can legalize and then when the pathway to citizenship, earned citizenship, would open up. There’s also talk about getting in the back of the line. That’s easier said than done — calculating what the line is at any given time. It moves. So those judgments will have to be made. But I think the key thing is to have border security in the bill, to open up legal migration more than it is, to deal with employers, and then to have certainty with how the 11 million here, who are either illegal or undocumented, depending on what your vocabulary is, come out of the shadows.”

Republicans in Congress were concerned last week when a customs official said DHS had made no reportable progress creating a so-called “border condition index.” Napolitano offered them no assurance that such a metric was forthcoming or even possible.

“The border condition index was a project we undertook because we thought just measuring apprehensions at the border was not in and of itself a total measure of what life was like at the border,” she said.

You needed to look at things like property values and crime rates, and things of that sort for the seven million or so people particularly who live along the U.S. Mexico border. That is, it turns out, a very difficult thing to do in any kind of statistically significant way. But in terms of how we measure border security, or what we look for, it’s a combination of the manpower, the technology we have, the aerial coverage, and infrastructure. So for example we now have aerial coverage over the entire southwest border. We didn’t have that before. They can then tip things that are seen to our forces on the ground. The technology part is absolutely critical as a force multiplier. And we have stationed more border patrol agents down at the border than ever before. So the numbers have been driven to 40-year lows, if we just look at things like apprehensions. So we know we’re achieving success there. But a real measure is more qualitative. Really when you step back and think about the border, what you want is the ability to spot illegal traffic, particularly in the highly trafficked areas — some parts of the border are virtually not trafficked at all — and then the ability to respond to what is seen. And using that measure and the plans we have, we’re confident that the border is as secure as it’s ever been. But there’s no one number that captures that.

Despite this and other disagreements with bipartisan negotiators in Congress, Napolitano expressed cautious optimism about the prospects of a bill passing.

“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,” Napolitano said. “Two wars were going on, we were close to a depression, health care was winding its way through the Congress, and it was like we can’t take on another big issue. I think now is the time. I think the election had consequences in that regard, as people looked at the changing demographics of the United States, and the changing demographics of voters in the United States, and I think that aligns with the general recognition…that the system we have needs to be rebooted.”

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