WASHINGTON - Calling the nation's immigration laws "sorely outdated and in need of revision," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pressed Monday for passage of the DREAM Act, saying it is the most-urgently needed change to immigration policy.
In response to another question after her second annual State of America's Homeland Security address, Napolitano also acknowledged that "serious mistakes were made" in Operation Fast and Furious, the government's botched gun-trafficking investigation.
But much of her speech was dedicated to the successes of her department and the challenges that remain, including threats of cyber-terrorism, the difficulties of responding to natural disasters and the need to balance fair trade with safe trade.
Napolitano touted the department's use of a "risk-based, information-driven approach to security" in combating security threats.
She boasted about President Barack Obama's commitment to securing the U.S.-Mexico border, pointing to a 53 percent decline in illegal immigrant attempts over the past three years as measured by Border Patrol apprehensions. She also cited an increase in seizures of illegal drugs and weapons along the border.
"We are also enforcing our immigration laws in smart, effective ways designed to protect communities while, to the greatest extent possible under current law, fostering legitimate employment and foreign investment," Napolitano said.
But Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, called Napolitano's assessment of the U.S.-Mexico border overly optimistic.
"In talking with ranchers and other residents near the border, and given the continued violence in the Tucson sector specifically, the approach to secure the border the Obama administration is pursuing is clearly insufficient," Flake said in a prepared statement.
Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona before being appointed by President Obama to head the department, conceded much work was still needed along the border. But she said lawmakers need to adopt policy changes to solve the nation's complex immigration problems.
"The bottom line is that our nation's current immigration laws are sorely outdated and in need of revision," she said. "President Obama views such a revision as both a matter of fairness and as an economic necessity."
In a question-and-answer period immediately following her address, Napolitano pointed to passage of the DREAM Act when asked what one aspect of immigration reform was most necessary.
"If you have to take just one element out of the whole universe of immigration that needs to be fixed, should be fixed, and came very close to being fixed by the Congress ... it would be that," Napolitano said.
Napolitano conceded problems with Operation Fast and Furious, an investigation by Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in which agents let illegal gun-buyers go in hopes of tracing guns to larger gun-trafficking rings. The operation, begun in late 2009, lost track of about 2,000 guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to testify to a House committee Thursday about the operation.
"I think it was acknowledged that mistakes, serious mistakes were made there," Napolitano said. "The key question is making sure those kinds of mistakes, from my standpoint, are never again repeated."
That statement underwhelmed a spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a prominent critic of the Obama administration's border policies.
"To say that mistakes were made during Fast and Furious is the understatement of the year, but it's nice that Secretary Napolitano has acknowledged as much," said Matthew Benson, the spokesman.
Benson agreed that security along the Arizona border has increased during the past few years, but attributed that more to a weakened U.S. economy than effective border-security policy.
"Anyone can point to their own statistics, but I think if Secretary Napolitano spoke with some of the ranchers who lived along the border or law enforcement who deal with this on a weekly or daily basis, she would see it is not secure," he said.