(Politico) – Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano mounted a vigorous defense of the Senate Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration plan on Tuesday, calling the legislation an “important first step” to reforming the nation’s immigration laws.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Napolitano said the 844-page bill would improve the immigration system in several ways: it would modernize the current legal immigration system, implement stricter accountability measures for employers and improve border security.
Napolitano also praised the provision that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
“These are all common-sense steps that the majority of Americans support,” Napolitano said in prepared remarks. She added that the introduction of the bipartisan bill is a “true milestone, and we look forward to working with you to build on this momentum.”
Napolitano had been scheduled to testify last Friday on the bill, but was pulled into the unfolding manhunt for two bombing suspects in the Boston Marathon attacks.
In her testimony on Tuesday, Napolitano acknowledged that federal officials “will learn lessons from this attack,” adding that “we will apply those [and] we will emerge … stronger.”
“The response was swift, effective, and in many ways serves as a model for the future,” Napolitano said, particularly of coordination between law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels.
Still, Napolitano cautioned that the investigation was “very active” and “ongoing” as senators pressed her on details of the probe. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said it was premature for investigators to say the Tsarnaev brothers were not part of a broader terrorist plot.
“All threads are being pulled,” Napolitano testified.
The bulk of the hearing focused on border security concerns. A core provision of the bill includes a set of so-called security triggers that would have to be written and implemented before undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. could transition to legal status and ultimately to citizenship.
Of the triggers, Napolitano said: “I believe we can satisfy them in the upcoming years.”
But several Republicans were still skeptical of whether the border would be sufficiently secured under the Senate legislation. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the bill appeared to have a policy of “legalize now, enforce later.”
Another Republican, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, argued that the Senate bill gave “extraordinary” discretion to Napolitano and the Department of Homeland Security on immigration matters.