Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies before the Senate… (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pushed back Wednesday against congressional demands to further boost border security, and said those calls shouldn't delay creating a path to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Napolitano said the Obama administration has doubled the number of border patrol agents and deported a record number of illegal immigrants. The number of illicit border crossings has plummeted, she said.
"Too often the 'border security first' refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems," Napolitano said during a hearing that was interrupted by protesters chanting, "Stop the deportations.”
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Napolitano said border security today is "light years" away from when President Reagan signed the last piece of major immigration legislation, in 1986.
The Border Patrol has deployed more than 21,000 agents, up tenfold from three decades ago, she said. Last year, the immigration service deported 409,000 people, versus 25,000 forced out in 1986.
Republicans on the panel sharply challenged her assessment.
"I do not believe the border is secure," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. "I believe we have a long, long way to go," he said.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, said the administration has "effectively done enforcement first and enforcement only," and he urged the committee to work on a comprehensive immigration bill this spring.
TRANSCRIPT: President Obama on immigration reform
"The window of opportunity will not stay open for long," he said.
Several Republicans argued that immigration should be tackled in pieces that both sides can support. There is broad support for increasing the number of technology visas and tightening sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants, but there is a deep divide about whether to offer legal status and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) argued that the committee should consider legislation to deal with "discreet problems" rather than "trying a massive immigration reform."
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) agreed with the piecemeal approach. Lee dropped out of a group of four Democrats and four Republicans who had been working on a compromise bill because, he said, he didn't agree with the others on a pathway to citizenship.
U.S. immigration law: Decades of debate
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