Obama presses Congress to rework immigration laws

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Obama administration expects Congress to begin moving to overhaul the nation's immigration laws early next year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Friday, adding that improved border security and a drop in migration caused by the economic downturn make such changes "far more attainable" than in 2007.

"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 at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, was aimed at Latino advocates who have expressed skepticism that Obama would fulfill a campaign pledge to push for a "comprehensive" immigration package.

Napolitano reaffirmed Obama's support for a "tough but fair" path for legal status for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

"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. She argued that the time to work on immigration issues is when a sluggish economy is dampening illegal migration.

In recent years, the U.S. government has built 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, because of 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's message she 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."

Republican critics say that 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 (Tex.). "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 calendar in the Senate, which is set to take up health care and climate legislation.

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