WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has dramatically improved security along its border with Mexico and met other requirements set by lawmakers in 2007 for passing immigration reform, a top U.S. official said on Friday.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said improvements, including a big decline in illegal border crossings, have altered the political climate that existed in 2007 when Congress last failed to overhaul immigration laws.
"The security of the Southwest border has been transformed from where it was in 2007," she told an audience at a liberal Washington think tank.
"We have, I think, attained basically control between those ports of entry," she said, noting the impact of increased border patrols, fence construction and a new security initiative to combat smuggling.
Immigration is a politically divisive issue in the United States, where an estimated 12 million illegal aliens live. Hispanics, the largest immigrant group, are an increasingly important voting bloc and Mexico is a big U.S. trade partner.
Lawmakers failed to enact reforms in 2006 and 2007, and many fear another failure could delay change for a generation.
"What I have seen makes reform far more attainable this time around," Napolitano said.
"Many members of Congress said that they could support immigration reform in the future but only if we first made significant progress securing the border. Many of the benchmarks these members of Congress set in 2007 have been met."
President Barack Obama says he wants legislation to restructure immigration by early next year.
Obama supports the idea of offering citizenship to illegal immigrants in good standing while getting immigration enforcement to crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers and hardening the porous border with Mexico.
But the 2010 timetable poses risks for Obama, already criticized for not meeting a campaign pledge to tackle the issue this year. If the debate drifts too far into next year, it could fall victim to congressional election year politics.
While Obama's Democratic Party controls Congress, some in the party may be wary of supporting immigration changes if doing so comes at the price of being painted as soft on illegal immigration or border security.
Napolitano, tasked by Obama to help expedite congressional efforts to craft a comprehensive immigration law, said legislative language is in the works.
The former governor of Arizona, a border state, added that her department is working to reassure Congress that proposals for processing and resolving illegal immigration cases are technologically feasible.
Seizures of contraband have climbed dramatically this year, she said, while enhanced enforcement and a weaker U.S. economy have cut the flow of illegal immigrants by more than half.
The number of people caught illegally entering the country dropped by 23 percent in the past year, the Wall Street Journal reported this week, citing rising U.S. unemployment and tighter security as main factors for the drop in border arrests.
Napolitano said a more favorable climate for comprehensive reform in Congress has also been buttressed by signs that more Americans want the broken immigration system fixed as well as vocal support from law enforcement officials, clerics and leaders from business and labor.
Without reform from Congress, the situation could quickly deteriorate. "If we don't have those laws, particularly when the economy begins to rebound, what I fear is that we will see another wave of illegal immigration despite the massive law enforcement resources that are at the border," she said.
Editing by Paul Simao