Napolitano on Immigration: Border Is Secure So 'Fix the Entire System'

Homeland Security chief Napolitano says no need to delay immigration overhaul.

ByABC News
March 1, 2013, 1:52 PM

March 1, 2013 -- The U.S. border is secure and it is time to move forward on comprehensive immigration overhaul, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told ABC News in an exclusive interview.

"My belief is that you need to fix the entire system because, from my standpoint, one of the biggest draws of illegal traffic across the border is the demand for illegal labor," she said Thursday.

"And until you have a natural -- a nationwide system, for employers to be able to verify their employees, it's really tough to get at that demand side."

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The secretary, who worked the Arizona-New Mexico border for 20 years as a prosecutor and then governor, said the border can always be improved and should never stop benefitting from new security technology, but the difference between today's border and that of days past is evident.

"The amount of manpower, technology, everything else that we have put on that border is simply amazing," she said. "This is not the same border that was."

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Arizona, often an area of contention among advocates of strong border security, has seen more infrastructure developments in the Tucson sector, which is the bulk of Arizona's border-protection zone, than "just about any other place on the southwest border," she said.

"We're putting mobile surveillance so that we can move around and watch and we have increased the boots on the ground," she said. "Over the last couple of years, we've added what we call boots in the air, aerial surveillance, for the first time, border-wide, but really focused on that Tucson sector."

Napolitano says the progress made in Tucson is "the greatest of all the nine Border Patrol sectors."

She emphasized the need for improving access to visas to allow entry into the United States legally and bring the undocumented workers "out of the shadows."

"So that we know who they are, we have their biometrics, and we're better able to then focus on narco-traffickers and human smugglers and trans-national criminal operations, the big law enforcement needs that we have," she said.

For the secretary, the argument that border security is needed before overhaul doesn't cut it.

"That argument often is used as a way of not addressing the underlying issue," she said, "which is how do you deal with the whole system?"

When pressed about what it'll take to convince those who insist on fixing the border first, she said, "There are some who we will never convince, because what they mean by border security is sealing the border and that is not going to be feasible. It's a very rugged, tough border.

"It is a border that is thousands of miles long. So what I would say is that it's not time to delay for some ephemeral definition of border security. It's time to appreciate what's there, to commit to sustaining that over time and to deal with the whole system."

And, she said, "hope springs eternal," adding that Homeland Security will continue its supportive role in the discussion and she hopes it can be addressed in bi-partisan way.