GWEN IFILL: Once Congress gets past its budget woes, another huge domestic challenge awaits. Republicans and Democrats have said they will take up immigration reform. The question is how.
Last week, a new Pew Hispanic center report showed illegal immigration is on the decline. Last year, there were 11.1 million illegal immigrants living in the country, down from 11.2 million in 2010. That's down from a peak of 12 million unauthorized immigrants reported in 2007.
Latino voters overwhelmingly supported President Obama in November, and he has said immigration reform will be high on his second -term agenda.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will oversee the administration's next steps.
Ray Suarez sat down with her earlier today.
RAY SUAREZ: Secretary Napolitano, welcome to the program.
SEC. JANET NAPOLITANO, Department of Homeland Security: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, over the week past, there's been a lot of reporting saying, once we figure out what to do about the fiscal cliff, immigration is next. Are the people who are writing that correct?
JANET NAPOLITANO: I certainly hope so.
I think that, having dealt with border enforcement and immigration enforcement for the last 20 years, I can say it is time to look at the entire system and make sure that it matches our economic needs, our law enforcement needs and our values.
And, right now, there are some mismatches that are fairly serious.
RAY SUAREZ: Any plan has to be assessed for its plausibility. Is this going to work?
Does DHS take a role in helping the political side of the shop figure out what would work and what wouldn't work in an answer to having so many people in the country out of status?
JANET NAPOLITANO: Yes.
And it happens in a number of ways. First, we work with the White House. We're the operational side. We're the ones that manage the thousands of agents and investigators and adjudicators who are operating the immigration system, the Border Patrol, operating the border security mission.
But, as Congress begins to take this subject up -- and we hope they will -- we would be there to provide them real assistance and understanding what effects different provisions could have.
RAY SUAREZ: Many of the members of the House and Senate say, oh, sure, we'd like to do it, but border security first. What's the Department of Homeland Security's answer?
JANET NAPOLITANO: My answer is, look at the numbers and look at what we have done on border security.
We have more manpower, technology. We actually have air cover now across the entire Southwest border, things that we never had before. And like I said, I started off in immigration and border enforcement. You know, 20 years ago, I was the U.S. attorney for Arizona. I have seen the changes. And I know what impact they have had, so that illegal immigration numbers are down to where they were 40 years ago.
And, you know, you're never going to seal that border. That's not a possibility. But you can discuss border security and immigration reform simultaneously now. We don't have to this kind of first this, then that. At this point, they actually go together.
RAY SUAREZ: It's the policy of the Obama administration and,of course, your department to use prosecutorial discretion when you're working with people who are undocumented, who are in the country illegally.
There have been reports saying that, even though that's the policy, up to half of the people that the United States has sent home in the last three years haven't been violent criminals. Many thousands have only committed the crime of being here out of status.
JANET NAPOLITANO: That's not accurate.
And it's certainly not accurate in the last year or two, as we have seen priorities get situated within the department and enforced, so that last year upwards of 90 percent of those we removed from the country either had criminal violations, they were repeat violators, those who use our border as kind of a revolving door, or those we caught right at the border and we don't want them to get into the interior of the country.
And I think, as we move forward, those numbers will become more and more robust, in the sense of filling out who are the actual criminals who are being removed from the country, criminal in the sense they have committed violations other than or in addition to being in the country illegally.
RAY SUAREZ: Right now, we're coming out of a jobs trough, at a time where there's been slack demand for labor in the United States.
Is this something that has to get fixed before the job engine revs up again, before there's a hunger and a new demand for labor? Does the United States have to have a better answer than we have had in the past?
JANET NAPOLITANO: Well, I think one of the things we need to watch for is, as our economy recovers, will it become kind of a draw for illegal immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the like?
Now, the Mexican economy is also coming back. That actually has been very helpful. And Mexico now is talking about having its own border patrol on their northern border. That would be very helpful.
I think we want to work together with Mexico and their new leadership on what we do with respect to illegal migration from Central America.
But all of these things, as your question says, they all are related with each other. And you have to create the right balance. You have to have the right way for people to come in legally.
You have to have the right balance for who can come in to work in -- particularly in certain jobs where there's a continued labor shortage.
And when you do that, it allows us on the enforcement side to focus on those who have more nefarious purposes.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, you have been a prosecutor, as you mentioned. You have been an executive, a state executive. But you have also been an elected official long enough to know that this is a political question as well.
Did Nov. 6 change the calculations on both sides of the aisle? Is there a new energy to get this done, one way or the other?
JANET NAPOLITANO: Well, I think, speaking in terms of how we look at it at Department of Homeland Security, and I think as the White House writ large, we have been very committed from the first term to try to do something on immigration reform.
The Hill wasn't able to take it up for a variety of reasons. But I think now there is a new willingness to take a look at this subject. It's always a tough subject. It has been historically.
But we're at a period in our history where we have an opportunity to really create a 21st century immigration system that fosters legal crossing, legal workers, that then allows us on the enforcement side, as I mentioned, to really focus on those who are here that are dangers to public safety and others.
RAY SUAREZ: Janet Napolitano is the secretary of homeland security.
Secretary, thanks for joining us.
JANET NAPOLITANO: You bet. Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Later this week, Ray will examine the state of the administration's new policy to stop deporting young immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.