By ELIOTT SPAGAT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SAN DIEGO — U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured the Mexico border Monday to trumpet increased enforcement as she campaigned for an overhaul of immigration laws.
The former Arizona governor highlighted "incredible" spending on border enforcement, 40-year lows in "illegal immigration numbers" and relatively low violent crime rates in major border cities like San Diego and El Paso, Texas.
"What we have seen now compared to 20 years ago is like the difference between a rocket ship and a horse and buggy," Napolitano said at a news conference after a helicopter tour.
Napolitano continues her border tour Tuesday in El Paso, while the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on immigration reform. The House panel includes several immigration hawks.
A bipartisan group of senators wants assurances on border security as Congress considers proposals that would bring the biggest changes to immigration law in nearly three decades. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators released a blueprint that would bring a path to citizenship for people living in the U.S. without documents, but they demanded assurances on border security first.
President Barack Obama does not endorse such a linkage in his own immigration proposal. But Republicans in the Senate group, including John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida, say they cannot support an immigration bill that doesn't make a pathway to citizenship conditional on a secure border.
"I believe the border is secure. I believe the border's a safe border. That's not to say everything is 100 percent," Napolitano said.
Peter Nunez, chairman of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates a restrictive immigration policy, acknowledged substantial increases in border spending over 40 years but said it was impossible to declare whether the border is secure because there are no easy metrics.
"How are you going to define secure?" said Nunez, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego. "It's a subjective thing. It's just nonsense."
The Border Patrol made 356,873 apprehensions on the Mexican border during the 2012 fiscal year, up 8.9 percent from the previous year but still hovering near 40-year-lows. U.S. Customs and Border Protection's budget nearly doubled to $11.7 billion in 2012 from $6.3 billion in 2005, according to figures from the Migration Policy Institute.