WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who sits at the center of the nation's immigration debate, pushed back Wednesday against congressional demands to tighten border security further before creating a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Napolitano argued that border security had "never been stronger." She said the Obama administration had deported a record number of people, had increased the number of border agents to a record 21,300 and cut illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.
Napolitano called for legislation to expand opportunities for legal immigration and to increase penalties on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. That would lower incentives for people to enter unlawfully to find work, she said, and allow border guards to focus more on stopping drug traffickers and smugglers.
"Too often the 'border security first' refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems," Napolitano said in a combative hearing that was interrupted by protesters chanting, "Stop the deportations."
Napolitano cited a series of security improvements in the last four years, including more sophisticated surveillance equipment, more seizures of drugs and weapons and more efficient enforcement at official border crossings.
Republicans on the panel sharply challenged her upbeat assessment.
"I do not believe the border is secure," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. "I believe we have a long, long way to go."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) took aim at the administration's decision to limit most deportations to illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes and to stop deporting those who have avoided trouble and have close family in the United States.
More than 400,000 people, mostly convicted criminals and repeat immigration violators, were deported last year.
"We have a serious unwillingness to enforce even the most basic laws," he said.
The sparring came after a bipartisan group of eight senators trying to forge a compromise bill agreed in principle to tie benchmarks for stricter border security to opening any gateways to citizenship. The standards, such as additional border agents or more miles of fencing, have yet to be determined.
The four Democrats in the group met with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday evening to report on the negotiations. Obama told them he would support a bill that provides for stronger borders, creating a path to citizenship, holding employers more accountable and streamlining legal immigration, according to a White House statement.
Proposed benchmarks for more agents and more barriers in failed 2006 and 2007 immigration reform bills have been surpassed, Terry Goddard, former Arizona attorney general and an immigration activist, told the panel.
"We need something achievable rather than constantly moving the goal posts," he said.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, said the Obama administration had "effectively done enforcement first and enforcement only," and he urged the panel to prepare a comprehensive immigration bill this spring.
Several Republicans argued that reforms should be tackled in pieces that both sides can support. There is broad backing for issuing more visas to highly skilled and highly educated applicants, for example, but there is a deep divide about whether to offer legal status to illegal immigrants already in the country.
In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Obama urged Congress to pass a comprehensive bill. It should include both strong border security and a pathway to earned citizenship, he said, including passing a background check, paying taxes and a penalty, "and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally."
In the official Republican response to Obama's address, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tried to strike a compassionate tone, citing his family's Cuban roots. Rubio favors creating a path to citizenship but only after ratcheting up border enforcement.
Both sides said finding the middle ground was now key to producing an acceptable compromise.
"The good news is that Republicans and Democrats are not that far apart on many if not most of the critical issues we face," Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said Wednesday.