Partisan divides were apparent at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday during discussion on immigration reform and how the complex issue should be tackled.  Several Republicans on the committee said that the nation’s borders are not secure and that the current efforts to reform immigration policies would lead to a new attempt at amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was one of those testifying at the hearing, and she insisted that U.S. borders have “never been stronger,” and she detailed efforts undertaken by the administration to enforce current laws,  including deporting more than 400,000 people since Obama took office, as well as increased staffing at the border and infrastructure and technology improvements.  She urged Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul that strengthens security while also addressing the factors that entice people into the United States. When Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked Napolitano whether she had ever seen a better opportunity for a comprehensive bill.  “No,” she replied.  “This is the moment.”

Republicans, however, disagreed, saying those efforts by the administration have been insufficient.  Republican Senator Jeff Sessions (AL) said that he was concerned that, despite discussions to pair better border security and increased enforcement with a path to citizenship, the efforts would instead amount to “amnesty only.”  If the bill does not include provisions to halt illegal immigration,  “it will not pass,” he said.    Senator John Cornyn (R-TX)  referred to a scathing study by the Government Accountability Office that found that the Customs and Border Patrol has “varying levels of operational control” over only 44 percent of the nearly 2,000 mile border.

In his opening statement, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said he was looking forward to marking up legislation “soon.”  “Our window of opportunity will not stay open long.  If we are going to act on this issue, we must do so without delay,  I hope today’s hearing helps to emphasize the urgency of this situation,” Leahy said.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), a member of the Judiciary Committee and one of the eight members of the bipartisan group working to produce an immigration reform bill, told the panel that the Senators are “on track” to produce a bill by their targeted March time frame.

Meanwhile, the four Democratic members of the bipartisan working group met with the president on Wednesday at the White House to brief him on the ongoing immigration talks.  The group assured the president that negotiations are progressing, that both sides are working in good faith, and they remain confident that the group will be able to agree to a bill proposal in the next couple of weeks.