RECAP/ANALYSIS: A Discussion on Immigration Policy with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
We are both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws.
Everyone recognizes that our current system is not working and our system needs to be changed.
Those were the central themes this morning when Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke at the Center for American Progress (CAP) on immigration. As the Obama Administration’s go-to on immigration reform, she has a daunting task ahead as the Administration and Congress tackle an issue that evokes strong positions from Congress, law enforcement, business, labor, religious leaders, and advocates -both pro and anti- across the country and political spectrum.
There is no question that Secretary Napolitano’s creds on immigration are second to none. As Governor of Arizona, she gained hands-on experience on balancing the conflicting complex needs and interests of various interests and organizations. Arizona, after all, is 30% Latino, shares a 370 mile border with Mexico (which includes the Tohono O’odham Nation that crosses the border and numerous National Parks) and has such characters as the controversial Mariposa Sheriff Joe Arpaio. While Governor, she did a tremendous job of balancing the economic, enforcement, and family issues surrounding the border. On one hand, she once criticized the wall-only approach of many in Congress by saying “You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.” On the other, she was the first Governor to declare a state of emergency and call for the National Guard to patrol the border. Having worked on the issues since 1993, Secretary Napolitano gets that immigration is a hard and politically volatile issue.
Her remarks today, however, made it clear that the Obama Administration believes it can make progress on the immigration debate. The Secretary’s remarks were especially timely as immigration reform is expected to be the next big issue to be tackled by Congress and the Administration after health care (somewhere in the past month it snuck past climate change, another Administration priority, in the lineup).
In her remarks, Secretary Napolitano made it clear that this was more than just about immigration. She started her speech by talking about a “new foundation for growth and prosperity,” mentioning health care, climate change and educational reform. Immigration was the fourth item of that foundation, she said, in the Obama Administration’s determination “to deal with long lingering problems.”
She noted that immigration has been a problem that been punted year to year, Congress to Congress, Administration to Administration. The Secretary said that the immigration story is one we all know. People sneaking across the border for jobs and economic relief. Select employers flaunting laws by offering subwages to illegal workers, and a resulting population living in the shadows. From a national security perspective, she said that the Department of Homeland Security needs reform to do its job of enforcing the law and keeping our country secure. “Laws need to be reformed.”
The Secretary described immigration reform as a three-legged stool:
- First, it requires serious and effective enforcement
- Second, it must address the legal flows for family and workers
- Third, it must deal with those here in the country illegally
By addressing these three items, the Secretary indicated the government could build responsibility and accountability into the process. The three-pronged stool, she noted, also required three participants – employers, immigrants, and government.
The Secretary noted that the last big immigration effort – in 1986 – failed, in part, because it promised enforcement but could not deliver. She said “it would not happen again” and that “America needs enforcement.” She indicated that the Administration fully intended to pursue reforms that address both immigration and enforcement.
She then alluded to the 2007 attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform by the Bush Administration (ironically, led by her predecessor Secretary Michael Chertoff, who also faced an uphill battle). She noted that since then the immigration landscape has changed. She went on to cite the progress that had been made in a number of areas at the Department of Homeland Security, including:
- The Southwest Border Initiative announced last March by President Obama which includes assets from DHS, Department of Defense, and Department of Justice.
- Increased focus on inspection and detection technology.
- 100% screening of Southbound rail shipments.
- And increased focus on manpower, technology, and infrastructure.
The Secretary stated that these items are ones that Congress said were lacking in 2007 when immigration reform fizzled and she believes that the needed progress has been made and that the Administration is showing that it is serious and strategic in its approach to enforcement. Among some things she said shows progress are:
- The government has replaced policies that look tough with policies that are designed to be effective;
- The government has redesigned state and local arrangements to attack the serious criminal alien problem;
- DHS has expanded Secure Communities;
- ICE has increased auditing of companies suspected in hiring illegal aliens;
- DHS has been encouraging workplace compliance by expanding and improving E-Verify; and
- DHS has expanded use of new biometrics technology that has helped increase the government’s ability for countering immigration fraud.
So what can we expect in the near year? Based on the Secretary’s comments today, here are the priorities for the legislation, which she deems a “sensible solution:”
- Tougher smuggling laws;
- An update of laws that don’t cover new means of moving stuff by bad actors (stored value cards were given as an example);
- Interior and worksite enforcement law changes;
- Changes to provisions relating to immigration-related fraud; and
- a legal foundation to bringing illegal immigrants out of shadows.
On this last point, the Secretary emphasized that our nation won’t have a secure law enforcement/national security system if we have a significant segment of the population that remain in the shadows. As part of that legal foundation, she would expect that there would be a number of requirements that would need to be met for individuals to gain legal status, including:
- Registration Requirement
- Criminal Background Check
- Requirement to Pay Back Taxes
- A Requirement to Learn English
The Secretary made it clear that the effort should not just be an enforcement solution and that the reform must address families, businesses, and workers needs. In sum, she made it clear – just as when she started – that “immigration must be fixed.”
While most of the ideas described by Secretary Napolitano are not new and have been tackled in the past, her outlined approach, while seemingly heavy on enforcement details, is certainly comprehensive.
What comes next will be the real challenge. Will there be enough “immigration” in the proposed bill to win the support of advocates and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus? Will there be enough enforcement to win over many of the “enforcement only” or “enforcement first” Members of Congress? Will it be able to maintain the support of a mosaic of business interests (tech companies, agriculture and seasonal employers, etc)? Will it address the moral and ethic issues that many religious leaders, including the Evangelical right, feel need to be addressed? How does next year being a potentially volatile election year affect the proposed reform, especially for moderate and conservative Democrats (a group that would extend beyond the Blue Dogs, based on 2007 observations and statements)?
If immigration reform is to be a success, the Administration needs a weathered professional who has seen what the fight ahead looks like. It appears that they may have found their woman in the desert of Arizona in Secretary Napolitano.