MEXICO CITY (AP) — Political calls for more walls and policing at the U.S.-Mexico border are a "straw man" designed to defeat immigration reform, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said Wednesday.
Napolitano said in an interview with The Associated Press that U.S. money would be better spent on easing border-crossing bottlenecks that affect trade rather than on adding more barriers and agents.
"When you go to some of our ports and see the backup — it's gotten better but it's not good enough. And it's not keeping pace with the amount of commerce that's growing between our countries," she said, emphasizing that she is expressing a personal opinion now that she has left government.
"You cannot seal a border, that's an unrealistic expectation," she added. "And I think that unfortunately it has become a straw-man argument to prevent immigration reform from passing."
The prospect of Congress rewriting U.S. immigration laws is increasingly unlikely. The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill last year that would boost border security, remake legal worker programs and offer a path to citizenship to the estimated 11.5 million people now living there illegally. But the House, where all lawmakers are facing re-election later this year, has not acted on any element of the legislation.
Napolitano stepped down as homeland security secretary in September to become president of the 233,000-student University of California system. She spoke in Mexico on Wednesday on a trip to promote collaboration between the UC system and Mexican universities. She said perceptions on both sides of the border have inhibited student exchanges, including fear of violence by Americans and sentiments that the U.S. is an unfriendly place for Mexicans.
As homeland security secretary, Napolitano supported then Mexican President Felipe Calderon in his stepped-up attack on drug cartels, a strategy that many say caused a spike in gruesome violence that scared many Americans from traveling in Mexico.
"Mexico is a sovereign nation and makes its own decisions ... the policy of the U.S. government is to support those decisions," she said.
Napolitano also set records every year in the number of immigrants deported from the United States.
But she said the Obama administration and the University of California system have done a lot to expand opportunities for students in the U.S. without proper documents, allowing some 700,000 so far nationwide to stay in the country under a deferred status.
"I don't know any other country in the world that's done that for students, and in California we've done even more," she said. "Those students also qualify for in-state tuition even though they're technically undocumented, and I'm supporting a bill now that would create a state loan bank for those students because they can't get federal student loans."
Napolitano has sought to soften perceptions about her positions on illegal immigration since she left office. The number of Customs and Border Protection officers has tripled to more than 20,000 over the last decade, including the years when Napolitano oversaw the budget for the border patrol, and the agency is looking to add 2,000 more.
She also played down fears that President Barack Obama's decision to declare almost 500,000 acres of mountain ranges in New Mexico as a national monument could create an opening for Mexican drug cartels. The proclamation on Wednesday heightened criticism from some lawmakers in the West and local law enforcement agents who see the move as a threat to security in the region.
Napolitano noted such areas already exist along the border and have been policed through agreements between Homeland Security and the Interior departments.
"There are national parks all along the border," she said.
Associated Press writer Ted Bridis in Washington contributed to this report.