A top Obama administration official threw cold water on Republican lawmakers' recent immigration reform proposals during a briefing with reporters Tuesday.
Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said a proposal made last week by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to incorporate a border-security trigger mechanism that would be voted on by Congress annually as part of immigration reform was "not the way to go."
"Relying on a so-called trigger is not the way to go," she said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "There needs to be certainty in the bill so people know when they can legalize and when the pathway to citizenship, earned citizenship, would open up."
Paul, during a speech before top Hispanic small-business leaders, said in order to bring conservatives aboard an immigration overhaul, any measure should let lawmakers vote on whether border security is up to snuff before current illegal immigrants could move forward to legal status. He said it would help reassure conservatives that any path to citizenship wasn't just a magnet for more people to cross the border illegally.
Many Republicans are wary of supporting any proposal that allows for "amnesty," a fluid term that for many means any path to citizenship for someone currently illegally in the United States, even if he or she has to pay a fine and pass a background check.
Napolitano was also skeptical of the concept of those here illegally "getting in the back of the line" when it comes to achieving citizenship, another proposal commonly discussed by conservatives.
"The talk about getting in the back of the line—that's easier said than done," she said. "Calculating what the line is at any given time … it moves, so those judgments [about policy] will have to be made."
Napolitano's comments come at a time when Republicans have had a stark turnaround in their openness to working for immigration reform. Napolitano echoed a recent Republican Party report that noted the importance of conservatives reaching out to Hispanic voters, particularly on immigration reform.
"The election had consequences in that regard, as people look at the changing demographics of the United States," she said. "Whatever side you're on in the immigration debate, there's a recognition that the system we have needs to be re-booted; it just doesn't fit current reality. I'm always optimistic and we will do everything we can to support bipartisan efforts in the Congress to get this done."
Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, also emphasized the importance of border security as part of any reform package.
"Border security is not somehow different than looking at the overall immigration system," she said. "They go together. We need a better way to let people come legally over the border; straightening out the visa situation where legal immigration is concerned is a part of it."
Another key piece to reform is developing a means for employers looking to fill labor gaps to easily check the legal status of potential employees. That would allow DHS to concentrate on cracking down on employers that are flouting the system and promoting illegal immigration by hiring those laborers.
"The key thing is to have border security in the bill, to open up legal migration more than it is, to deal with employers and then to have certainty with how the 11 million who are either illegal or undocumented come out of the shadows," Napolitano said.
While her agency is consulting with both the White House and the so-called "Gang of Eight" on immigration proposals, she declined to offer details of the conversations.
"They deserve the space to conduct their discussions with some semblance of confidentiality until they are ready to announce whatever agreement they have," Napolitano said.
One detail she did illuminate was on the cost of conducting background checks for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States practicing "de facto" amnesty. Those seeking citizenship would have to pay a fee for the biometric and background check processing, as well as a fine for living in the United States illegally.
"As we advise the White House, there are ways to deal with [the administration costs] without getting a big number," Napolitano said.
Lawmakers are expected to unveil comprehensive immigration proposals in the coming weeks.