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Napolitano Expects Fees to Cover Immigration Reforms

Napolitano Expects Fees to Cover Immigration Reforms

By Alexis Simendinger - March 27, 2013

At some point this spring, backers of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate are expected to unveil a bill and then defend it against conservative criticisms that millions of undocumented workers who want citizenship will eventually strain the nation’s budget.

On Tuesday, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the costs of some of the key reforms backed by the administration would not be borne by taxpayers, but by the immigrants who opt to pursue any new pathway to citizenship enacted into law.

"They'll need to pay a fee. They'll need to pay a fine. They need to get right with the law -- they did break the law," she said during a reporter breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "So some of this will be fee-based."

When asked by RCP about the budgetary impact of immigration changes, the secretary said her department had examined some of the potential costs to taxpayers, anticipating that the Congressional Budget Office would calculate the price tag of any immigration bills. (DHS has provided technical advice to eight senators and their staff members who are collaborating to author a reform measure that has not yet been unveiled.)

President Obama said Monday he wants the Senate to begin debate on a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system in April.

“One of the things we’ve looked at in terms of our own scoring is how much of this can and should be fee-based,” Napolitano explained. “So, for example, if there’s going to be a program where the 11 million undocumented now can come out of the shadows [and] register, we get their biometrics; we run the background checks. . . . That’s a lot of people. But they’ll need to pay a fee. They need to pay a fine.”

The secretary said the budgetary costs of port inspectors could be defrayed in much the same way. “We can have more fee-based services at the ports,” particularly for land-based cargo, she added. She offered no specifics.

“Without speaking to what the [Senate] Gang of Eight is looking at, I can tell you that [in] advising the White House, there were ways to deal with [the costs] without getting a big number that CBO would have to score,” she told RCP.

In addition to concerns about border security and amnesty, Republican lawmakers are expected to raise questions about whether a surge of millions of new citizens would strain federal resources.

To counter those worries, the administration and pro-reform advocacy groups have begun to emphasize the economic benefits of immigration reform, and the potential for an influx of young immigrant workers who are on a path to citizenship to eventually pay into Social Security and Medicare and pay income taxes.

Obama on Monday repeated his argument that undocumented immigrants would have to “earn” citizenship by bearing some of the costs in the form of taxes and fees: “We know that real reform means providing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship . . . a pathway that includes passing a background check and paying taxes and a penalty, and learning English and then, going to the back of the line behind everyone else who is trying to come here legally.”

Napolitano appeared to undercut the president’s explanation that currently undocumented immigrants would be placed “behind” others who seek citizenship once a new system became law. “There’s also talk of getting in the back of the line,” she told reporters. “That’s easier said than done [in terms of] calculating what the line is. At any given time, it moves.”

The secretary was critical of proposals that would make legalization or citizenship contingent on thresholds tied to border security conditions. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul joined others in his party to outline his own version of that concept last week.

“Once people really look at the whole system and how it works, relying on one thing as a so-called trigger is not the way to go,” Napolitano said. “There needs to be certainty in the bill so that people know when they can legalize, and when an earned pathway to citizenship would open up,” she added.

The White House made the same argument in January.

“There will be no uncertainty about their ability to become U.S. citizens if they meet these eligibility criteria,” Obama aides told reporters as the president launched his immigration reform initiative. At the time, aides were specifically responding to questions about whether the president would sign a bill that contained border security triggers as contingencies before citizenship could be granted.

When asked Tuesday to react to Napolitano’s “trigger” critique, White House spokesman Jay Carney steered the conversation toward Obama’s record of tightening border security and away from any hurdles and conditions that might be favored by GOP senators.

“We're not there yet,” Carney said of the administration’s push to see a bill on the floor. “Progress is being made. It's being made in the Senate, which is where the president hoped it would be made, and we are very much monitoring that process and engaging in that process. But it's not done yet, and I don't want to prejudge a bill that hasn't been written.”

Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona who survived opponents’ accusations in her state that she was lax about illegal immigration, said legislative prospects for comprehensive immigration changes have improved since she was governor, and even since she joined Obama’s cabinet.

“Four years ago when I started here and went around the Hill and said, ‘Let’s work together on immigration reform,’ I didn’t really get a positive response,” she recalled. “There were two wars going on. We were close to a depression. Health care was winding its way through the Congress, and it was like, 'We can’t take on another big issue.’ I think now is the time.”

On all sides of the debate “there’s recognition that the system we have needs to be rebooted. It just doesn’t fit the current reality,” she said. And the 2012 presidential election brought that message home, she added. “I think the election had consequences in that regard, as people look at the changing demographics in the United States and the changing demographics of voters.”

For those reasons and the pace of discussions on Capitol Hill, the secretary said she was upbeat about the prospects for reform. “Am I optimistic? I’m always optimistic. We will do everything we can to support bipartisan efforts in the Congress to get this done.”

Napolitano, 55, said little to erase a suggestion that she’s interested in a presidential run at some point -- an idea prompted by a February Washington Post article that said the secretary was “quietly making it known that she is considering the race.” (Speculation about her future has also included a possible cabinet shuffle to become U.S. attorney general, should Eric Holder depart the Justice Department; a Supreme Court seat, should a vacancy emerge; or a return to Arizona to run again for governor in 2014.)

"My plate is so full now that that kind of contemplation would be the kind of thing that would keep me up at night,” she said when asked about her White House aspirations. “And I lose enough sleep as it is."

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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