WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee Wednesday that the border is as secure as ever and it should not be an impediment to the comprehensive immigration reform.
Napolitano, noting recent reform proposals being pushed by both the White House and a bipartisan group of senators, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that "we are at a unique moment in history."
"All sides of the immigration debate agree that the status quo is not acceptable and that we must act to address the significant shortcomings of the current system," she said.
But the former goveneror of Arizona was challenged from both directions -- on one side by senators who charged that the administration has not fully enforced current immigration laws, and on the other by protesters upset that the law is being enforced too harshly.
Napolitano was less than a minute into her testimony when the first of what would be three waves of protests disrupted the hearing. The protesters appeared to be upset by deportations.
Each group of protesters was escorted from the hearing room by U.S. Capitol Police, who said they arrested a dozen people from the hearing.
Some Republican senators, meanwhile, said the administration is not focused enough on securing the border. They said that customs and immigrations officers get little support from the department in upholding current immigration laws.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said calls for dealing with border security and "amnesty" simultaneously - as opposed to requiring a secure border first -- will result in amnesty without enforcement.
"For the American people … their concern is we're not going to have enforcement, but amnesty only," Sessions said.
If the administration had been more interested in enforcing current laws, he said, the American people might be more willing to accept a broad immigration reform.
But Napolitano noted that there are more U.S. Border Patrol agents now than ever before, that deportations of illegal immigrants hit a record high last year and that there are higher rates of drug and gun seizures. That is proof of a tighter border, she said.
"Too often, the ‘border security first' refrain has served as an excuse for failing to address overall immigration reform," Napolitano told the committee.
Napolitano, who primarily talked about President Barack Obama's immigration-reform proposal, focused on creating a pathway to citizenship, streamlining legal immigration and enforcing laws more efficiently.
The president's plan is similar to a framework announced two weeks ago by a bipartisan group of eight senators, including Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake.
But the senators' plan would allow for a pathway to citizenship only after the "trigger" of border security is tripped. Flake asked Napolitano on Wednesday how to address the problem of defining a secure border.
But Napolitano disagreed with concept of a trigger for reform.
"A trigger implies you don't get to these other things … when in fact these all have to be looked at simultaneously," she said.
Flake said at the hearing that he wants to get immigration reform through Congress and to the president. But in a prepared statement released after the hearing, he said it is "crucial" to include border security in any such bill.
"Despite the administration's rhetoric, there is much more needed to secure the border, particularly in the Tucson sector," Flake's statement said. "Any definition of a strong immigration system must include border security, which is why making it a priority in the immigration bill being drafted is crucial."
The committee hearing on immigration reform came the day after the State of the Union address in which Obama challenged Congress to get a comprehensive immigration bill to his desk.
"Our immigration system is sorely out of date and it is time to fix it," Napolitano said.