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Janet Napolitano Predicts Immigration Reform in 2010

Created: 20 November, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
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5 min read

New America Media

WASHINGTON — Timing is everything in the arts of war or politics, according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s Nov. 13 speech on the need for immigration reform.

 “Now, while everyone may agree that the status quo isn’t working, what everyone may not be aware of is how much the immigration landscape has changed since comprehensive immigration reform efforts failed in 2007,” Napolitano said. “I’ve been dealing hands-on with immigration issues since 1993, so trust me. I know a major shift when I see one, and what I have seen makes reform far more attainable this time around.”

 Napolitano’s speech at the Center for American Progress (CAP), rather than a rhetorical tour de force, was a finely calibrated recitation of the Obama administration’s wish list and rationale for the ingredients of a comprehensive immigration reform package it hopes will move through Congress in 2010. In its broadest and simplest terms, she described a “‘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 already here.”

 To the latter point, how to resolve the legal status and residency issues for an estimated 12 million people living in the United States illegally, Napolitano never mentioned the word “amnesty” in her speech or during the brief question and answer period for a standing-room-only audience.

 In his introduction, CAP President John Podesta cited then-Arizona Gov. Napolitano’s comment in 2005 decrying the proposed construction of an additional 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border —“If you build a 50-foot high wall, somebody will find a 51-foor ladder,”— as evidence of her pragmatism.

 Yet her comments touted America’s accomplishments of what some critics term a continuing militarization of the border to reduce immigration flows from Mexico. “The security of the Southwest border has been transformed from where it was in 2007,” Napolitano said. “The federal government has dedicated unprecedented resources to the Mexican border in terms of manpower, technology and infrastructure — and it has made a real difference.”

 In fact, by her own statement, DHS is only 100 miles short of 700 miles of fencing that prompted her comment in 2005. “Fast-forward to today, and many of the benchmarks these members of Congress set in 2007 have already been met. For example, the Border Patrol has increased its forces to more than 20,000 officers, and DHS has built more than 600 miles of border fencing,” Napolitano said.

 The emphasis was in keeping with Napolitano’s responsibilities as “the nation’s top cop,” as CAP’s vice president Angela Kelly, the moderator, termed the Homeland Security Secretary. Thus, there was no discussion by Napolitano of whether the immigration flow from Mexico to the United States could be better addressed by bilateral macro economic policies or by a restructuring of multi-lateral trade and finance policies that often devastate small farmers and low-wage earners in developing economies.

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 Napolitano stayed on message.

 “The immigration debate of 2007 happened during a period of historically high levels of illegal entry to the United States,” she said. “Two years later, because of better enforcement and the current economic circumstances, those numbers have fallen sharply. The flow has reduced significantly – by more than half from the busiest years, proving that we are in a much different environment than we were before.” That a reduction in the number of immigrants to the United States due to a downturn in the country’s job market was as a key strategic factor in the administration’s new push for reform was inferred by Napolitano in her answer to a reporter’s question. She said one of her concerns is that “when the economy rebounds, we’ll see another wave of illegal immigration.” While Napolitano cited DHS successes in drug interdiction and identifying “dangerous criminal aliens,” she also framed the immigration debate as a moral imperative at the core of Americans’ sense of fairness. Family reunification, like amnesty, was another term that never surfaced during the discussion, but the Secretary made references to the often-lengthy waits that some immigrants encounter when trying to bring loved ones to the United States.

 On the demand-side of illegal immigration — employers hiring workers without knowing their status or turning a blind eye to unlawful entrants — Napolitano boasted of DHS efforts in strengthening the E-Verify system, an Internet database. “More than 167,000 employers at 639,000 work sites use E-Verify. In the past month, the program has grown at the rate of nearly 2,000 employers a week,” she said.

 In addition, Napolitano said, “We are auditing the books of thousands of employers suspected of relying on illegal labor to achieve an unfair advantage in the marketplace. As part of this effort, Immigration and Customs Enforcement audited more employers suspected of hiring illegal labor in a single day in July than had been audited in all of 2008.” No data was provided, however, on the fines and penalties levied as a result of the audit.

 Despite the administration’s simultaneous tackling of large issues like health care reform, Napolitano said she had confident in the Obama team’s capacity to multi-task. She said the administration’s decision to press for Congressional action on comprehensive immigration reform in 2010 had been made months ago, adding and that she came “to lay out for you what the administration is seeking. It is best to take up the whole problem, the whole system,” Napolitano concluded.

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