Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano insisted that the U.S. border has "never been stronger" and dismissed the notion that border security is the first initiative that must be addressed before all other immigration reform is put in place.
"I often hear the argument that before reform can move forward we must first secure our borders, but too often the 'border security first' refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems. It also ignores the significant progress and efforts that we have undertaken over the past four years," Napolitano said in testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee's first hearing on immigration reform Wednesday. "Our borders have, in fact, never been stronger."
"Our immigration system is not working. Our communities, workers and employers are all frustrated by a system that treats a drug smuggler the same as a high-achieving student, undercuts honest employers and leaves millions in fear of deportation and vulnerable to fraud and other crimes," Napolitano said. "We have tried before to reform this system. We have been unsuccessful because those efforts failed to address the root of the problem and in some cases directly contributed to the situation we find ourselves in today."
President Obama renewed his commitment to achieving comprehensive immigration reform in his State of the Union address Tuesday night and urged Congress to send him a bill in the coming months. The president will hold a meeting on immigration with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, and others late Wednesday.
"The meeting represents the ongoing commitment and belief that comprehensive immigration reform effort needs to continue to move forward, as soon as possible," a White House spokesman said of Wednesday's meeting.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who, along with Schumer, is a member of the bipartisan "Gang of 8? panel which presented an immigration plan last month, is not attending Wednesday's meeting. A spokesman for Rubio says the White House has not reached out to the Florida senator about immigration policy.
In his opening statement at Wednesday's hearing, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, urged Congress to adhere to the president's call to act swiftly on immigration reform and warned of the danger of speaking in terms of enforcement only.
"Despite all our efforts and all our progress, there are some stuck in the past who are repeating the demands of enforcement first. I fear that they mean enforcement only. To them I say, this has stalled immigration reform for far too long. We've effectively done enforcement first and enforcement only. It is time to proceed to comprehensive action to bring families out of the shadows," Leahy said. "The president's right. Now is the time."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., challenged Leahy's argument, saying that ignoring the issue of enforcement suggests the administration is more concerned with "amnesty."
"What American people - what they're concerned is that enforcement - by saying enforcement only, you really mean amnesty only. You really mean that we're not going to have enforcement, but we've got to have amnesty first," Sessions said. "That's part of the big debate that we're wrestling with."
Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant and journalist, warned the senators of using the term "illegal" to define the undocumented and in an impassioned plea, asked what Congress plans to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country.
"When you inaccurately call me illegal, you not only dehumanize me, you're offending me. No human being is illegal," Vargas said. "What do you want to do with me? For all the undocumented immigrants who are actually sitting here at this hearing, for the people watching online, for the 11 million of us? What do you want to do with us?"
Protesters interrupted the hearing three times, and at one point, a woman waved a flag reading "No More deportations" as she was escorted out of the room.
At a House Judiciary hearing last week, Republicans grappled with determining whether there is a solution that stops short of a path to citizenship and pushed for immigration reform to be dealt with in a piece by piece basis.
ABC News' Ann Compton contributed to this report.