Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano lashed out Wednesday at those she said are trying to "score political points" by claiming that U.S. border security efforts are spinning out of control.
She pledged additional resources for Southwest states but added that the border with Mexico will never be totally sealed.
Her comments, made to a packed audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, amounted to the strongest response so far to repeated attacks by Republican lawmakers who have slammed the Obama administration for not doing enough to secure the nation's borders.
Key Republicans, including Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, have flatly rejected efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration bill until the administration does more to secure the Southwest border. President Obama, meanwhile, is under increasing pressure from Latino groups, businesses and many other constituencies to get an immigration bill through Congress.
But Napolitano said actions the administration is taking represent the "most serious and thorough" effort ever to secure the nation's borders.
"The plain fact of the matter is that the border is as secure now as it's ever been but we know we can always do more," Napolitano said. "The notion that you're going to seal that border somehow is something that anybody who's been involved in the actual doing of law enforcement, the frontline work of law enforcement, would say you're never going to totally seal that border."
"The notion that you're going to somehow seal the border and only at that point will you discuss immigration reform -- that is not an answer to the problem," she added.
Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona, announced a series of new steps the administration is taking to beef up border security, including flying unmanned drones along the Texas border and throughout the Gulf Coast region and an effort with the Justice Department to link federal information technology systems with those of all state and local law enforcement agencies operating along the Mexican border.
Unimpressed, Kyl and McCain fired back.
"With this announcement, it appears that the Obama administration has finally realized that the border is not 'secure' as some administration officials have stated," said a McCain spokeswoman. "The programs being proposed are a good start, but represent only a fraction of what is needed to secure the border."
"Naturally we welcome all efforts to deal with illegal immigration, but I find it curious that it's been almost a month since President Obama announced his deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops, yet not a single Guardsman has been deployed," Kyl said. "I find it also curious that the administration is announcing its intent to 'work' with state and local law enforcement, while at the same time suing Arizona over its effort to enforce immigration laws."
Kyl was referring to recent comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the administration will go to court to challenge an Arizona law that empowers police to question the immigration status of people stopped during routine operations.
Napolitano refused to comment on the lawsuit, saying questions should be directed to the Justice Department. But she said immigration enforcement is "a clear federal responsibility."
"We cannot have 50 different state policies. It simply will not work," she said.