WASHINGTON - Sweeping immigration legislation would improve U.S. security by helping authorities to know who is in the country, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday, as supporters of an immigration overhaul marshaled arguments against opponents trying to slow it down in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Testifying at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Napolitano said a wide-ranging bill circulating in Congress devotes more money to securing the border, requires employers to verify their workers' identity and implements new systems to track people as they leave the country - something that might have helped flag when one of the suspected Boston bombers traveled to Russia last year.
Of great importance, Napolitano said, is the eventual path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants here illegally.
Republicans have criticized such a path as a divisive proposal that rewards lawbreakers. But Napolitano said it is a fundamental tool to help law enforcement authorities know who is here.
"One of the real significant improvements made by this bill is to bring people out of the shadows," she said. "We know who they are. We know where they are. And by the way, from a police perspective, once these people know that every time they interact with law enforcement they won't be subject to removal, it will help with the reporting of crimes, the willingness to be a witness and so forth."
Napolitano's support for legislation that's a top second-term priority for President Obama was no surprise. While in the past she has criticized the idea of making a path to citizenship conditional on accomplishing border security goals first - as the new bill does - Napolitano didn't repeat that criticism Tuesday. Instead she said that the border security "triggers" in the bill are achievable, suggesting they wouldn't loom as major impediments to citizenship.
Napolitano's testimony came as the Boston Marathon bombings have clouded the introduction of the landmark immigration legislation, with Republicans suggesting it should be slowed down or revisited until more is known about any loopholes in the immigration system that the Boston bombers may have exploited, or national security flaws that should be addressed in the bill.
An author of the bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was considering an amendment to require tougher background checks for certain immigrants deemed to pose a higher risk, such as those seeking asylum, an aide said late Tuesday.
But so far there's no indication the two suspected bombers, brothers of Chechen origin, violated U.S. immigration laws.
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