Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s speech today at the Center for American Progress (CAP) will probably be remembered as a key moment in the history of immigration reform. The Secretary not only expressed support for a comprehensive overhaul of our immigration system, she also made it clear that it is an imperative for the ultimate security of the United States.

The Secretary said:

At the Department of Homeland Security, we need reform to do our job of enforcing the law and keeping our country secure. Over the past ten months, we’ve worked to improve immigration enforcement and border security within the current legal framework. But the more work we do, the more it becomes clear that the laws themselves need to be reformed.

This marks a major shift in attitude from the early days of DHS when deportation rather than integration was viewed as the primary method for solving our immigration crisis. It also marks a shift in how DHS will help to shape the next go-around of immigration reform. The DHS of 2007 looked at immigration reform solely through a national security lens, and in the process promoted “reform” that would have crippled our immigration process. The DHS of 2009 however, wants immigration reform that capitalizes on our history as a nation of immigrants.

The Secretary’s speech touted many of DHS’s improved enforcement measure that will undoubtedly be criticized as too little or too much. But she also picked up on an essential point of the 2007 debate—many opponents of reform argued that it couldn’t be done until the border was better reinforced or until DHS was better at processing applications. Her list of accomplishments may not be perfect but it is hard to claim there hasn’t been significant movement.

In her speech, Napolitano essentially challenged Congress to do its share, to make the tough choices and to be brave enough to give her the tools she needs to enforce and transform our immigration laws.

The setting of the speech was critical as well. The Center for American Progress is an enormously influential voice among progressive Democrats—many of whom have not embraced immigration reform as the kind of social issue on par with health care, climate change, or economic security—that academics and policy makers believe it to be.

Napolitano got it right—immigration reform opens the doors to greater economic prosperity, and preserves our tradition as a nation of immigrants. She said “we are both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. This is ingrained in our national character and it has helped make America the great nation that it is. But we must modernize our laws for the 21st century so that this vision can endure.”

She also made it clear that slowly but surely mainstream American gets it too. She took great pains to acknowledge the broad support for immigration reform that has emerged since the last major legislative debate in 2007.

She noted “a larger segment of the American public has embraced the need to engage this debate and arrive at a sensible solution to this problem. CAP has helped to document this shift. There are leaders of the law enforcement community speaking out, saying that immigration reform is vital to their ability to do their jobs keeping Americans safe. Faith leaders, including the National Association of Evangelicals, have announced their support for immigration reform as a moral and practical issue. We are seeing more business leaders and more labor leaders engaged in this debate in a constructive way than we have ever seen before. These constituencies have all arrived at the same conclusion that prevails among the American people: this is a problem that needs to be fixed – and the best way to ensure that we can uphold our laws is to make sure our laws are rational and enforceable.”

This litany of voices isn’t just a happy coincidence; the fact that evangelical leaders and law enforcement officials are coming together for CIR indicates just how much this issue can and does cut across political and social lines. Everywhere that is, but in Congress.

Photo by Center for American Progress.