Opinion Columns & Blogs

Janet Napolitano: Act on immigration

I joined President Obama and others in El Paso, Texas, last week as he reported on the tremendous progress we have made in securing the Southwest border and transforming our immigration enforcement efforts over the past two years even while we wait for Congress to address immigration reform.

I know this border well. I was raised in New Mexico. I have spent most of my adult life in Arizona as the U.S. attorney and as attorney general and a two-term governor. I have walked the border, flown it, ridden it on horseback, and worked with border communities from Brownsville to San Diego. So I speak from personal experience when I say that the Southwest Border Initiative that we launched in March 2009 is the most comprehensive and dedicated effort to strengthen border security that this country has ever deployed.

We have doubled the size of the Border Patrol from where it was in 2004. There are more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the border than ever before. We have completed all but three miles of fencing called for by Congress. We have strategically deployed thousands of technology assets along the border. And our relationships with our federal, state, local and tribal partners, as well as our counterparts in Mexico, have never been closer or more integrated.

Every statistical measure shows these heightened border enforcement efforts are working. Apprehensions, which is how we measure attempts to cross the border illegally, have decreased by 36 percent in the past two years and are less than a third of their all-time high a decade ago. Over the past 2 1/2 years, we've seized 31 percent more drugs, 75 percent more currency and 64 percent more weapons than during the previous 2 1/2 years. Perhaps most important, crime rates in border communities have held steady or dropped in the past decade, and four of the biggest cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are in border states — San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin.

Also, in the past two years, ICE has prioritized the identification and removal of illegal immigrants that pose the greatest threats to our communities and public safety. During this period, the percentage of those removed who are convicted criminals has risen 71 percent.

We are also prioritizing enforcement actions against employers who knowingly hire illegal labor. Since January 2009, we have levied more fines and debarred more employers than during the entire eight years of the previous administration.

Even as we enforce our laws, however, we must acknowledge that the laws themselves need reform. After all, we are a nation of immigrants as well as a nation of laws. And there is no question that we need the talents and contributions of immigrants in order to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.

Some have said reform must wait until we meet benchmarks for border security. Yet we have met and exceeded these benchmarks.

As the president and I saw in El Paso, the reality is that the Southwest border is simply not the same as it was four years ago, or even two years ago — in terms of manpower, technology and resources. And more is on the way, so that our current efforts are sustained and we never again lose control of the border.

The plain fact is that we must fix our immigration laws at the same time as we continue deploying historic levels of resources to the Southwest border. These two requirements — border security and immigration reform — are inextricably intertwined.