Click here for link to video of Napolitano's speech
Washington Post - Updated 3:08 p.m.
By Spencer S. Hsu
The Obama administration expects Congress to begin moving to overhaul the nation's immigration laws early next year, while improved border security and a drop in migration caused by the economic downturn make passage "far more attainable" than in 2007, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Friday.
"When Congress is ready to act, we will be ready to support them," said Napolitano, President Obama's "point-person" on immigration policy issues. "The first part of 2010, we will see legislation beginning to move," she said.
Napolitano's speech, delivered Friday morning at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, was aimed at Latino advocates who have bridled at her rhetorical emphasis on enforcement in her first 10 months in office, and expressed skepticism that Obama would fulfill a campaign pledge to push for a "comprehensive" package.
Napolitano reaffirmed Obama's support for a "tough but fair" path for legal status for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, and improved flows for immigrant families and workers.
"We will never have fully effective law enforcement or national security as long as so many millions remain in the shadows," Napolitano said.
At the same time, Napolitano sought to reframe the debate from past years, saying lawmakers' earlier demands that the government improve "enforcement first" have been met, and arguing that the time to work on immigration issues is when a sluggish economy is dampening illegal migration, not when rapid job growth is fueling it.
In recent years, the U.S. government has erected more than 600 miles of fencing and pedestrian barriers on the 2,000 mile border with Mexico, and more than doubled the ranks of the U.S. Border Patrol, to 20,000 officers, Napolitano said. Meanwhile, due to a shrinking job market and increased enforcement, Border Patrol arrests last year were less than half the 2005 level of 1.2 million.
"These are major differences that should change the immigration conversation ... We have gotten Congress' message," Napolitano said. "Trust me: I know a major shift when I see one, and what I have seen makes reform far more attainable this time around."
The address was coordinated with the White House as it prepares for upcoming battles after health care legislation. It contained few new specifics, although Napolitano for the first time addressed many of the principles that Senate Democrats and her predecessors in the Bush administration previously embraced, such as toughening enforcement against smugglers and unscrupulous employers, streamlining visa policies, and requiring illegal immigrants to register, pay fines, pass criminal background checks, pay taxes and learn English.
Republican critics say changing laws to allow more foreign-born workers is foolhardy at a time when U.S. unemployment is nearing 10 percent.
"It is ironic that a poor economy is their justification for amnesty," said Rep. Lamar Smith, (R-Tex.), ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. "How can they claim that enforcement is "done" when there are more than 400 open miles of border with Mexico, hundreds of thousands of criminal and fugitive aliens and millions of illegal immigrants taking American jobs?"
Immigrant advocates said they were pleased the administration is approaching "the moment of truth" for a debate, but said they were still watching to see it and Congress commit real political capital. Congressional watchers also say the issue faces a crowded calender in the Senate, which is set to take up health care and climate legislation, before election-season politics take precedence by mid-year.
"The president and his administration need to make it clear that immigration reform is a priority and must be acted upon during this Congress," said John Wester, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and bishop of the diocese of Salt Lake City. "Hopefully this is the beginning of a campaign by the administration to get legislation moving."
Posted at 2:45 PM ET on Nov 13, 2009