WASHINGTON, June 24, 2010— -- The many sides of the country's immigration debate all agree on one thing – the federal government is responsible for border security and enforcement and it needs to do more.
Yet at a time when the southwest U.S. border with Mexico is lined with more patrol agents, physical barriers, and surveillance technologies than ever before, the question is just how secure is secure enough?
"The progress made is tremendous but we still have a long, long way to go before our border is secure," Arizona Sen. John McCain said during a visit to the border near Douglas, Ariz., over the weekend.
McCain and many other Republicans have criticized the Obama administration's strategy to curb the illegal flow of humans, drugs and weapons into the U.S. They say the situation, particularly in Arizona, has become out of control.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has said the state's controversial new immigration enforcement law, set to take effect July 29, is a direct response to "a crisis that we did not create and that the federal government refuses to fix."
But the Obama administration, while acknowledging more can be done, says its approach to border security and interior immigration enforcement has been thorough, aggressive, and unprecedented.
At an event in Washington Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cited a litany of border security achievements, including a record high number of detentions and deportations of illegal immigrants and a steadily declining influx across the border. She also pointed out that crime rates in U.S. border communities have been stagnant or declining.
"The border is as secure now as it's ever been," said Napolitano. "The numbers tell the story and they do not lie."
She pointed to the president's request for $500 million in emergency funds for beefed up security measures and deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops as the latest examples that the administration takes the issue seriously.
Meanwhile, rhetorical wrangling over the definition of an acceptably 'secure' border has dominated the national discourse and crowded out a push by immigration advocates for a comprehensive legislative overhaul of the nation's immigration system.
Should Secure Border Be Prerequisite to Reform Bill?
Republicans and many Democrats have been wary of addressing the situation of the nation's 10.8 million undocumented immigrants and possible changes to the legal immigration system ahead of the November midterm elections. And while Democrat-sponsored comprehensive immigration reform measures have been introduced in both the House and the Senate, neither has co-sponsors from across the aisle.
"Secure the border first" has become a common refrain among lawmakers from both parties, particularly those representing southwestern states, when asked whether they'd support a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
"Once we get the border secured, then we can support a lot of things," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said earlier this month of a bipartisan immigration reform bill. "Until then, it's going to be very difficult."
Late last week, Kyl went further saying the administration was deliberately "holding hostage" additional measures to secure the border "unless and until it is combined with comprehensive immigration reform." The White House has rejected the accusation.
Napolitano said the administration is "attacking" the challenges along the southwest border but that a more comprehensive, legislative solution to the country's immigration and border woes must not hinge on Republicans' arbitrary measure of border security.
"The notion that you're going to somehow seal the border and only at that point will you discuss immigration reform – that is not an answer to the problem," she said.
"The border is as secure now as it's ever been, but we know we can always do more and that will always be the case," she said. "It's a big border. It is 1,960 miles across that southwest border. It's some of the roughest, toughest geographical terrain in the world across that border… You're never going to totally seal the border."