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“DHS needs immigration reform”

November 13, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger


DHS Secretary Napolitano
Photo: Center for American Progress


Today, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, gave a speech at the Center for American Progress laying out the Obama Administration’s position on immigration reform.  It was a very strong speech, and what follows are some highlights.


First, Secretary Napolitano acknowledged the Administration’s preoccupation with the very serious economic situation the country is facing, but went on to note that this Administration is “taking on the critical challenges that have been ignored in Washington for too long.”  One of those challenges is immigration reform.


“Let me be clear: when I talk about “immigration reform,” I’m referring to what I call the “three-legged stool” that includes a commitment to serious and effective enforcement, improved legal flows for families and workers, and a firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here.”


Of course, this has been tried before, and didn’t get through Congress.  What’s different?


“In 2007, many members of Congress said that they could support immigration reform in the future, but only if we first made significant progress securing the border. This reflected the real concern of many Americans that the government was not serious about enforcing the law. Fast-forward to today, and many of the benchmarks these members of Congress set in 2007 have been met.”


She reminded us of how the immigration landscape has changed since 2007.


“The federal government has dedicated unprecedented resources to the Mexican border in terms of manpower, technology and infrastructure—and it’s made a real difference.”


She noted not only that the Border Patrol has attained a level of 20,000 officers and there have been hundreds of miles of barriers built, but that the Administration “has increased the resources the government is dedicating to combating drug cartels, and the smuggled cash and illegal weapons they thrive on,” and this has resulted in a significant increase in seizures of drugs, cash, and weapons.


In part due to enforcement, in part due to the economy, the number of illegal border crossings has declined by more than half from a few years ago.  Enforcement of immigration laws in the interior has also stepped up.  Secretary Napolitano touted the revised 287(g) agreements, Secure Communities, and the expanding use of E-Verify (which, she said, was gaining nearly 2,000 employers per week).


Since 2007, new technology has been deployed that allows us to more quickly screen someone trying to enter the country.


“…new biometric technology allows us to take the fingerprints of people coming into the United States and compare their prints against databases we couldn’t access before. This means we have new and enhanced abilities to quickly identify people….”


Regarding the government’s ability to handle reform, she noted that backlogs for immigration services have been eliminated, and processing times for all kinds of immigration applications have been reduced.


Another change since 2007: more of the public is demanding sensible solutions.


“There are leaders of the law enforcement community speaking out, saying that immigration reform is vital to their ability to do their jobs keeping Americans safe. Faith leaders, including the National Association of Evangelicals, have announced their support for immigration reform as a moral and practical issue. We are seeing more business leaders and more labor leaders engaged in this debate in a constructive way than we have ever seen before.”


[Conveniently, and as if to underscore Secretary Napolitano’s point about increased engagement on immigration reform, we were alerted to this blog post on NumbersUSA, an anti-immigrant group, which provides a list of the major institutions of our society that are pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.  It is an impressive list of nearly 50 mostly religious institutions, plus civil rights organizations, unions, business associations, and political organizations.  They are dismissed as “elites” by NumbersUSA (elites being anyone who does not agree with NumbersUSA’s anti-immigrant positions).]


The bottom line, for Janet Napolitano speaking as Secretary of Homeland Security, was this:


“When it comes to immigration, I took an oath as Secretary of Homeland Security to secure the nation by enforcing the law and managing legal flows across the border. Let me be clear: to do this job as effectively as possible, DHS needs immigration reform.”


While Secretary Napolitano listed new legal tools the Department would like to see to make enforcement more effective, she reiterated a point she made several times during the presentation:


“Let me emphasize this: we will never have fully effective law enforcement or national security as long as so many millions remain in the shadows.”


In addition to a legalization program and enforcement, Secretary Napolitano also said that, going forward, we need to “make sure the immigration system works to support American families, businesses and workers.”


On these points, she explained that,


  • “…unions will never achieve the best terms for workers when a large part of the workforce is illegal and operates in a shadow economy.”

  • “…our visa policies must work for every sector of our economy, and across the income scale. … We need to revise our current provisions for legal migration to help assure a legal workforce in cases where businesses can’t find Americans to fill their jobs.”

  • “Our immigration system is outdated where families are concerned, and we need to modernize and streamline the laws governing this process.  No one should have to wait in a line for years in order to reunite with a spouse or a young child.”


Among the questions that Secretary Napolitano responded to in the question and answer period after her remarks, she said that, regarding the timeline for reform, she hoped that in the first part of 2010, legislation would be moving.  To a question about whether enforcement elements of reform might move ahead first, with legalization following later, she said that, from a law enforcement perspective, having so many people in the country with unclear status makes it very difficult for the police to do their job of protecting their communities.


You can find Secretary Napolitano’s full remarks here.


A video of the CAP event can be viewed here.

The Forum's press release commenting on Secretary Napolitano's speech can be found here.


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