Image: Mexican Federal Police patrol near the U.S. border.
Ronaldo Schemidt  /  AFP - Getty Images
Mexican Federal Police personnel patrol the streets of Ciudad Juarez, near the U.S. border, during an anti-narcotics operation.
updated 5/20/2009 4:31:00 PM ET 2009-05-20T20:31:00

Contending that U.S. borders are more secure than ever, a leading Democratic senator said Wednesday it's time for the White House and Congress to overhaul immigration laws to stem the number of people coming into and living illegally in the U.S.

"We can pass strong, fair, practical and effective immigration reform this year," said Sen. Chuck Schumer.

President Barack Obama plans next month to meet with a small bipartisan group of Senate and House of Representatives leaders to discuss immigration with the intention of beginning debate on the issue later this year, according to an administration official who requested anonymity because the White House was not ready to announce the meeting. Schumer was expected to be among those attending.

In three tries over three years, Congress failed to pass an immigration bill, mainly due to opponents' insistence on dealing first with border security. No one has said who or what will determine whether the border is secure, and the mantra "border security first" has allowed lawmakers to put off dealing with the nearly 12 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

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At a hearing on border security Wednesday, Schumer cited reports from the Customs and Border Protection officials saying that the number of people arrested as they tried to cross U.S. borders illegally has dropped.

Schumer said that the number of people captured along the border with Mexico between Oct. 1 and May 15 was down 27 percent from the same period the previous year. Along the U.S-Canada border, the number was down 13 percent.

The lower demand for labor in the U.S. and stepped-up border enforcement measures are behind the decrease, Schumer said.

In the past few years, the federal government has built fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, installed surveillance technology and added hundreds of law enforcement agents to combat illegal immigration.

During an April 29 news conference, Obama said the country can't go on with a broken immigration system.

"What we want to do is to show that we are competent and getting results around immigration, even on the structures that we already have in place, the laws that we already have in place," Obama said, "so that we're building confidence among the American people that we can actually follow through on whatever legislative approach emerges."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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