WASHINGTON, D.C. (Gannett News Service) - Sen. Lindsey Graham said Tuesday a sweeping immigration reform bill he's drafting with a colleague has no chance to pass this year.
The South Carolina Republican, who's drafting the bill with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Congress might pass it in 2012 - if the Obama administration first toughens security at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a somewhat testy exchange with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Graham said drug wars south of the border are prompting many Mexicans to flee to the U.S.
The public needs to know that the federal government is doing all it can to curb the flow of illegal immigration, Graham said.
"It is impossible for me and any ... serious Democrat to get (the Senate) to move forward until we prove to the American people we could secure our borders," Graham said. "We've got a long way to go. But once we get there, comprehensive reform should come up, will come up, and I believe it we can do it by 2012."
Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, said the border "is as secure now as it has ever been." She said the White House has implemented or soon will implement every congressional security mandate, including putting up fences, increasing patrols and deploying high-tech devices to catch illegal immigrants.
The number of illegal immigrants captured near Tucson, Ariz., has fallen from 600,000 about six years ago to 200,000 this year, Napolitano said.
"The numbers are better than they've ever been,'' she said. ``But that doesn't mean we stop. But I would also suggest that the passage of laws at the state level illustrates the need for Congress to move ahead on (comprehensive immigration reform)."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the nation's toughest immigration law on Friday. That law makes it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant and authorizes Arizona law enforcement officers to demand proof of residency status from people they suspect are in the country illegally.
President Barack Obama and pro-immigration groups denounced the law. Graham said Tuesday he also opposes the law, but he sympathized with its supporters.
"What happened in Arizona is that good people are so afraid of an out-of-control border that they had to resort to a law that I think is unconstitutional," Graham said. "Let's ... be fair to the 12 million (illegal immigrants) but also be firm that we are never going to have 20 million more in the future. That's the winning combination."
By RAJU CHEBIUM
Gannett Washington Bureau