Sen. Graham says border security is a priority

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.

"One of the questions we need to talk about is whether securing the border is ever going to be reached in the sense of Congress, or whether that goal post is going to keep moving," she said.

For example, she said, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to 20,000 since 2002, including 4,000 in Arizona. The number of illegal immigrants apprehended crossing the border has plummeted from 1.6 million in 2000 to fewer than 600,000 last year, a decline of more than 60 percent.

However, she acknowledged that Arizona was an exception. Although the number of illegal immigrants arrested by the Border Patrol in Arizona has dropped by half between 2000 and 2008 -- from 700,000 a year to about 350,000 -- the state's share of illegal border crossers has rocketed from about 8 percent in 1992 to more than 50 percent last year. Arizona has taken over the top spot from California as the federal government has built 652 miles of fences and vehicle barriers and pushed human and drug traffickers into the Sonora desert.

At the same time, violence has flared in Phoenix between rival drug trafficking organizations. Several drug and safe houses used by smugglers have been discovered in the past year, and the shooting death of Robert Krentz, a prominent state rancher on the border in early March in which smugglers are suspected has jolted the state.

Since 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has sought to dismantle powerful drug cartels, triggering a wave of violence that has killed nearly 23,000 people.

The U.S. government has supported Calderon with $1.4 billion in aid, and also intensified cooperation among defense, law enforcement and border agencies.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed legislation Friday that generally requires police in that state to investigate any person whom they reasonably suspect may be an illegal immigrant, and makes it a crime for immigrants not to carry proof of their legal status. Brewer said the law was necessary because the federal government has failed to act.

Critics say the law may unconstitutionally expand police powers and lead to racial profiling, and Obama on Friday called the effort "misguided."

At the hearing, Napolitano elaborated on concerns that the measure could swamp federal immigration agencies, diverting law enforcement resources used to investigate, detain and deport the most dangerous illegal immigrants, such as felons and gang members.

"We believe it will detract from and siphon resources that we need to focus on those in the country illegally who are -- those who are committing the most serious crimes in addition to violating our nation's immigration laws," Napolitano said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company