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Sen. Graham says border security is a priority

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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; 4:16 PM

The Republican senator who has been the Obama administration's key negotiating partner on immigration legislation said Tuesday that concerns about border security, fueled largely by Mexico's drug war, must be dealt with before lawmakers take up a broader immigration package.

Escalating his criticism and adopting rhetoric used by many conservative lawmakers, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said there is no hope of passing a comprehensive bill this year and warned that forcing the issue would be "absolutely devastating" to chances for future passage.

Graham, who worked for months with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to develop a bipartisan immigration overhaul, pointed to passage last week of a state law in Arizona -- the most restrictive in the nation -- as evidence that the public sees the border as unsafe.

"Most Americans will think we have lost our minds if we move forward without securing the border," Graham said. "You can't ignore the fact that the border is more dangerous because of the [drug] war in Mexico."

Graham said Saturday that Democrats were focusing on immigration because of a "cynical political" calculation, and he said he will no longer support comprehensive energy and climate legislation -- another key issue in which he was negotiating with Democrats -- unless they relent on immigration.

Democrats have cited the Arizona measure as a sign that Congress must act swiftly on overhauling immigration. President Obama said Friday that failure to do so would "only open the door to irresponsibility by others."

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told reporters that the Justice Department is considering a court challenge. "I think that it is, I fear, subject to potential abuse and I'm very concerned about the wedge it could draw between communities that law enforcement is supposed to serve and those of us in law enforcement," Holder said Tuesday.

Speaking at a Senate Judiciary hearing, Graham appeared broadly skeptical of the prospects now for the bipartisan immigration measure, which would toughen enforcement at the border and at U.S. workplaces, provide a path to legal status or expulsion for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and link future immigration levels to economic conditions.

Graham said that while he opposed the law passed in Arizona, the public's frustration there illustrated why "there is no hope" of passing a broader overhaul in Congress. "What happened in Arizona is that good people are so afraid of an out-of-control border that they had to resort to a law that I think is unconstitutional -- it doesn't represent the best way forward," Graham said.

Congress could pass a more comprehensive measure "by 2012 if we're smart, and we address the big elephant in the room and that is that our borders are broken and there's a war going on," Graham said, while warning Democrats that that if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moves to a debate this year, "You are going to crash and burn and . . . it is going to be absolutely devastating to the future of this issue."

Testifying at the hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the southern border "is as secure as it has ever been." She argued that the U.S. government has more law enforcement forces on the southwest border than ever before and that illegal immigration was at the lowest point since the early 1970s.

She also noted the federal government has met security demands voiced by lawmakers in 2006 and 2007, when it last considered an immigration overhaul.


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