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Senate Democrats and a top Obama administration official sought Wednesday to decouple border security from a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a centerpiece of the principles laid out last month by a bipartisan Senate working group.
“There are still some stuck in the past who are repeating the demands of ‘enforcement first,’ ” Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said at a committee hearing on immigration. “I fear they mean ‘enforcement only.’ To them I say that this has stalled immigration reform for too long.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano agreed.
“Too often, the ‘border security first’ refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problem,” she said. “It also ignores the significant progress and efforts we have undertaken over the last four years.”
Napolitano also endorsed a tough employment verification system to reduce the incentive for immigrants to arrive illegally.
“If we have extra money to invest in immigration enforcement, is it better spend on more border patrol agents or is it better spent investing in a worker verification program that really looks at the demand side of this issue?” she asked.
Those positions could conflict with the Senate working group’s efforts. In its proposal, the so-called “gang of eight” laid out a plan in which the path to citizenship would only open up once a commission consisting of border state officials certifies that the border is secure.
But Democrats have since described the commission as more of a formality, saying it would not hold up the process of granting citizenship to undocumented people.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the bipartisan group, also said he did not want the issue of border security to derail the whole measure.
“I do want to get immigration through,” Flake said. “I don’t want any of the elements that we need to finish to hold up any of the other elements.”
Leahy said he plans to mark up an immigration bill in the committee within the next few months and move it onto the floor, warning that “our window of opportunity will not stay open long.” President Barack Obama has praised the Senate group’s work, while also making clear that he would put his own plan forward if lawmakers fail to reach a consensus.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the bipartisan group, said the talks have been productive and that the members are committed to sticking to their timeline of releasing a bill next month.
“We know we can’t take forever to get this done and we’re on track,” Schumer said. “Both sides know they have to give and they are.”
A similar bipartisan group in the House is also working on a proposal but could face more roadblocks. Many House Republicans have said they would not support granting citizenship, a precondition for Democrats. That could imperil the negotiations in that chamber.
Senate Republicans were more upbeat at Wednesday’s hearing but emphasized that enhanced border security would have to be part of any overhaul in order to garner their support. The last time Congress approved a major immigration overhaul, in 1986, the border security and employment verification provisions were never properly enforced, they said.