Napolitano ducks on undocumented immigrant legalization

At the Senate Judiciary Committee’s oversight hearing this morning, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano carefully skirted repeated questions about her views of whether longtime undocumented immigrants living in the United States ought to get a chance at legalization.

Although Napolitano did say she supports the DREAM Act — which would provide some children of undocumented immigrants raised in the United States a path to legalization if they complete two years of college or military service — Napolitano carefully avoided questions about whether a comprehensive immigration reform bill should include broader opportunities for legalization of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Her refusal to offer an opinion on that highlights just how controversial and politically dicey that issue will be as a new proposal for comprehensive immigration reform gets hammered out over the next few months.

Napolitano’s refusal to sanction legalization seemed to please Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the new ranking Republican on the committee, who pressed the issue by saying that while “we need to fix our immigration system” in his view, “the American people correctly are dubious of a plan that gives lawfulness now to people who came in illegally without confidence that the legal system is going to work in the future.”

That “amnesty” would become “a magnet or a message abroad,” he said. “When the American people realize that the broken pipe is being fixed … we can have a far better discussion about how to deal fairly and humanely with people who have been here a long time.” That echoes a common argument from restrictionist quarters that strict border enforcement must precede any considerations of legalization.

Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman, presented a more sympathetic case for legalizing undocumented immigrants now “living in the shadows” and tried to elicit Napolitano’s support. She wasn’t biting.

The secretary refused to say she supports legalization, saying only, in response to Leahy’s question about whether it makes sense to try to deport 11 million people, that “the sheer logistics of doing that are overwhelming.”