When Congress tried to tackle immigration in 2007, the measure collapsed in the Senate, in part because of concerns about border security, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
“The reason immigration reform failed in 2007 is that the American people don’t actually believe that Congress will actually follow through on important measures like border security, employment verification, visa overstays and the like,” Cornyn said.
But it won’t be easy. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was sharply critical of the idea of making it easier for illegal immigrants to work legally and of opening up the borders to more foreign workers in the future. Such steps could put American workers at risk and drive down wages, he said, while suggesting that immigration advocates in the business community are looking for cheap labor.
“There’s a lot of overconfidence about this bill,” Sessions said. “If it doesn’t really work, it’s not going to pass.”
Napolitano said the administration has already improved border security in the past four years. Last year, officials deported 410,000 people, more than in previous years. Border apprehensions, a common way to measure the inflow of illegal immigrants, are at a 40-year low, she said.
She added that the administration will have an enhanced visa monitoring system by the end of the year to better track when visa holders enter and leave the country. Right now, roughly 40 percent of illegal immigrants are thought to be people who came legally but overstayed their visas.
Democrats also emphasized that any immigration measure should make it easier for high-tech workers and for relatives of legal permanent residents to stay in the country. Leahy said he wants to include provisions protecting same-sex couples as well as victims of domestic violence who could lose their legal status if they leave their abusive spouse.
Later Wednesday, a key Republican member of the Senate group criticized Napolitano’s position and reiterated that tougher border security is a prerequisite to any immigration deal. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Napolitano’s statements at the hearing were “discouraging for those of us who are serious about permanently fixing America’s immigration system.”
“By continuing to oppose a key security principle with bipartisan backing, Secretary Napolitano and this administration appear to be laying the groundwork to scuttle the bipartisan effort in the Senate,” Rubio said.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.