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Janet Napolitano: Illegal immigrant legalization a hard sell

May 20, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

Janet Napolitano (Dept. of Homeland Security)

As immigrants’ rights groups are pressing President Barack Obama to step up efforts at comprehensive reform this year, one prominent member of Obama’s cabinet is acknowledging that the economic downturn has made legalization of illegal immigrants tougher to sell to the American public.

"When unemployment is up, anything that looks like you’re taking jobs away from …people who are lawfully here—citizens of the United States—is going to meet a lot of resistance," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during an exchange with reporters Tuesday morning.

The homeland security chief and former Arizona governor said the economic slump may also have eased some anti-immigration feeling by decreasing the flow of illegal migrants into the U.S. "Given that the numbers have gone down, some of the intensity of the debate seems to have dissipated," she said.

However, Napolitano said the economic factors combined to put an additional hurdle in the path of immigration reform advocates. "In balancing those things, I think it makes it more difficult," she said.

Napolitano’s concession was noteworthy chiefly because White House officials have declined in recent weeks to acknowledge that economic distress could undermine support for immigration reform.

In fact, the White House and immigration reform advocates have been making a concerted effort to argue that changes to the immigration laws will actually aid the economy by boosting tax revenues.

Greenspan US illegal immigrants  H-1B workers

"There is little doubt that unauthorized—that is, illegal immigration— has made a significant contribution to the growth of our economy,v former Federal Reserve Chief Alan Greenspan argued at a Senate hearing last month.

On Tuesday, proponents of immigration reform held a conference call with reporters to highlight research disputing assertions that immigration undercuts the wages of American workers.

"The culprit when it comes to unemployment is not immigration," said Rob Paral of Immigration Policy Center, a research group which favors legalizing illegal immigrants.

In his Congressional testimony, Alan Greenspan said the evidence suggests that illegal immigration slightly reduces the income of poorly educated Americans, but that the economic cost of such immigration is far outweighed by the economic benefits.

Napolitano, whose agency is responsible for securing the border with Mexico, said the economy-driven drop in illegal immigration is not a signal that the U.S. should scale back efforts to prevent unlawful border-crossing.

"Because of the decline in the labor market, the number of those trying to cross illegally to work has gone down," she said. "This is exactly the time when you should be carrying forward…because you don’t want to return to the situation we had in the middle of the last decade or the end of the last decade where, I think it’s fair to say, at least at the Arizona section of the border, they had lost operational control. You keep on ahead."

In March, Obama told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus he would hold a high-profile White House event to draw attention to immigration reform within a couple of months. Some lawmakers said it would be modeled on summit meetings held to address health care and long-term fiscal responsibility.

Last month, the New York Times reported that unnamed administration officials said the high-profile immigration event would take place in May. An official who spoke with POLITICO about a week before the Times story appeared said the profile-raising event on immigration would take place "in the May neighborhood."

However, Congressional aides and advocates said Tuesday they doubt any such event will take place this month. Obama may announce his Supreme Court pick next week and is scheduled to leave for Europe soon thereafter.

Discussions are ongoing, one Congressional aide said

Asked about plans for the high-profile forum, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said, "The President has consistently said that he wants to start the discussion later this year, because our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed."

Napolitano, whose agency oversees immigration, made no mention of such an event on her schedule for next week, which includes a two-day trip to Canada to discuss issues related to the northern border.

"From a political perspective, the president has made clear that he wants to begin having discussions about immigration reform this year. When and what form that will take I do not know," said Napolitano, who spoke with journalists Tuesday at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor.

In comments that were well received by immigrants’ rights advocates, Napolitano indicated that she has given new marching orders to refocus workplace enforcement efforts on employers who knowingly profit from illegal alien labor.

"Before you go in and arrest a bunch of workers, make sure you’ve done what you need to do to prepare a case against the employer if there’s a basis to believe that the employer has been intentionally and knowingly hiring illegally" she said. "The bulk of illegal immigration is because of labor demands. You’ve got to get at the pull factor here if you’re really going to have an impact."

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