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Senators challenge Napolitano on border-security metrics in reform bill

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the comprehensive immigration-reform bill introduced in the Senate last week. (Cronkite New Service photo by Connor Radnovich)

WASHINGTON – Skeptical senators Tuesday challenged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on how her department plans to provide a “meaningful” border-security figure, which is the key to a route to citizenship for immigrants here illegally.

Under the sweeping immigration-reform bill unveiled in the Senate last week, a path to citizenship would become available to illegal immigrants once the department certifies that 90 percent of border crossers in high-risk areas have been caught or turned back.

But opponents of the bill questioned whether the department can be relied on to provide an objective measure of border security. If the determination of border security is a subjective judgment of the department, the trigger doesn’t mean all that much, said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“If a trigger is certain to occur, then I would suggest it is not a meaningful trigger,” Cruz said.

Napolitano told the Senate Judiciary Committee that while there is no single number, the department has multiple measures that allow for a clear, reliable picture of border security.

She said a single-number look at the border is not as good as a holistic approach, taking different data and looking for trends. Some of the measures used by the department include apprehension rate, crime rates and reports from agents on the border.

“No one number captures the evolving and extensive nature of the border,” Napolitano said. “That’s why I keep saying there’s no one metric that’s your magic number 42 or something of that sort.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said metrics have always been a concern on the border, but he is confident the numbers will only get more complete as more resources are deployed.

“With better technology, particularly surveillance, we’ll be able to get a better figure there,” said Flake, one of the authors of the immigration-reform bill.

The comments came during the third day of committee hearings on S744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. The bill was the product of months of negotiations by a bipartisan group of senators, known as the “Gang of 8,” which included both Arizona senators.

The 844-page bill calls for billions in enhanced border security; a revamping of the nation’s visa system; required use of E-Verify to stop businesses from hiring immigrants here illegally; and a decade-long path to legal residence for some of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

One of the central aspects of the bill is the requirement that the border is secure before the pathway to citizenship can kick in.

Under the bill, the southern border will be considered secure when 90 percent of the people who cross illegally in a high-risk sector – one where more than 30,000 people were apprehended in the most recent fiscal year – are caught or turned back.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, pointedly asked Napolitano if she thought basing border security on high-risk sectors alone and ignoring large sections of the border was “high-risk.”

Napolitano said much of the border is not near population centers and is not crossed as often. The department wants to focus its resources in areas where there is more traffic, she said.

She said she would like to have the same flexibility to direct funding called for in the bill, and is concerned that it is currently dedicated to specific areas.

The bill calls for $3 billion for extra Border Patrol officers, for manned and unmanned aircraft and other surveillance systems on the southern border. It would also put $1.5 billion toward the southern border fence, including double-layer fencing, infrastructure and technology.

Napolitano reminded senators that not everything that reduces illegal immigration is located on the border. Fixing visas and the legal worker verification systems, such as E-Verify, are also important tools in driving down illegal immigration, she said.

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