Georgia’s U.S. senators are publicly criticizing recent comments made by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that legalizing millions of illegal immigrants would benefit the country’s struggling economy.
Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, both Republicans, sent a letter Friday to Napolitano and a number of other senators, expressing their disappointment at comments Napolitano made at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank.
Napolitano said that along with shoring up the United States’ borders with Mexico, lawmakers will have to overhaul immigration laws to create a "tough pathway" to citizenship for immigrants who are already living in the country illegally. An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States.
The "tough pathway" to earning legal status would require illegal immigrants to meet several tests, such as registering, paying a fine, passing a criminal background check, paying all taxes and learning English.
Napolitano said a pathway to legal status was important.
"We will never have fully effective law enforcement or national security as long as so many millions remain in the shadows," she said.
But the idea of turning illegal immigrants into "full-paying taxpayers" didn’t sit well with senators like Isakson and Chambliss, who said that immigration reform is code for blanket amnesty, and that the strides in enforcement that Napolitano cited were overstated.
"With all due respect, legalizing those who have no legal right to be in the United States will not be a ‘boon’ to American workers," the letter they sent to Napolitano said. "Rather, it would only exacerbate the unfair competition American workers currently face as they struggle to find jobs."
Others also said Friday that the timing is bad, given the 10.2 percent unemployment rate.
"The substance of her case is divorced from the reality of America’s economy today," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. "The arguments against amnesty are far stronger today than they were in 2007. You have a much tighter job market."
The letter the senators sent Friday "strongly" encouraged Napolitano to "cease any discussion about enacting a legalization program that will only hurt U.S. workers and make it harder for law-abiding citizens to weather this economic downturn."
The senators also questioned Napolitano’s sincerity about her commitment to enforce immigration laws and secure the country’s border with Mexico.
They said the Obama administration has weakened rules requiring contractors of the federal government to verify workers’ citizenship and has reduced the effectiveness of the 287(g) program that allows local law enforcement to detain illegal immigrants "in many communities.
"...We believe a commitment to the law must start at the top, and that enforcement of our laws should not be undermined by policies that tie the hands of law enforcement officials across the country," the letter said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.