Republicans working to craft a comprehensive immigration reform bill say there is one rock-bottom requirement for any deal: The border must be secure, and proven to be secure, before any path to citizenship is created for the millions of immigrants currently in the country illegally.  That is the one non-negotiable GOP demand.  And on Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano flatly rejected it.

“Relying on one thing as a so-called trigger is not the way to go,” Napolitano told a breakfast meeting of journalists.  Asked about her department’s recent revelation that it will not produce a long-promised method of measuring border security, known as the Border Condition Index, Napolitano said, “We’re confident that the border is as secure as it’s ever been.  But there’s no one number that captures that.”  Without a way to measure border security, many Republican reform advocates say, there’s no way to go forward with a reform agreement.

Napolitano’s comments were one more bit of evidence, if Republicans needed any, that the Obama administration does not intend to make enhanced border security a precondition of immigration reform.  “Every position and action the administration takes is consistent with the idea that they have no desire to accomplish immigration security,” said one GOP Senate aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“One of the challenges in crafting any reform is that the American people do not have confidence in this administration’s willingness to enforce current immigration law,” said Alex Conant, spokesman for Marco Rubio, the Republican senator and Gang of Eight member who has staked considerable political capital on the negotiations.  “Senator Rubio and several members of the immigration working group share these concerns, and it’s reflected in the solution they are trying to craft. Our legislation will include real security triggers to make sure out borders are secured.”

Added Conant: “Senator Rubio will not support any legislation that does not include real security triggers to make sure our borders are secured.”

As for Napolitano, another aide said, “I wonder if she’s freelancing, or carrying a message from the White House.”  At Tuesday’s White House briefing, spokesman Jay Carney was asked that very question, and while he spoke at length without saying anything definitive, Carney appeared to suggest that President Obama agrees with Napolitano.  From the transcript:

QUESTION: Secretary Napolitano said today that triggers are not necessary before comprehensive immigration reform.  So what does the White House do to convince those on the other side?  Since there are no reliable metrics about border security, what will you do to convince them that the border is secure enough for immigration and a path to citizenship to begin?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think the question is excellent, and I would note that what Secretary Napolitano has said — Secretary Napolitano has said that the Department of Homeland Security measures progress using a number of metrics to make sure we are putting our resources where they will have the most impact.  And I think that while there are different ways to look at this issue, the fact is, by a host of measures, there has been great improvement in our border security.

Certainly the facts are there when it comes to the resources that have been applied to border security — the doubling of border security agents, as well as the other metrics that you will often hear Secretary Napolitano or others discuss.  So we look at a variety of measures.

And I think you can look at what this President has committed to and the record on border security since he came into office to evaluate his assertion that border security is a vital element of comprehensive immigration reform.  That has been his position, and it continues to be.  And I would note — and this is something that has been acknowledged by important members of the Senate, Republican members — the progress that has been made on this very important issue, border security.  Much of — the last time comprehensive immigration reform was essentially abandoned, some of the issues — the principal reason for that was because of concerns about border security.  And many of the metrics that were put forward then have been met — the goals and the targets that were said to have to be achieved before we could move forward have been met.

But this is an ongoing issue.  This is an ongoing concern, and it’s an ongoing project of this administration.  And it will certainly be an important part of immigration reform.

QUESTION: Do you — does the White House oppose commissions or certain triggers before a path to citizenship can begin?

MR. CARNEY:  What we have said and I’ll say today is that we are not going to judge the bill before it’s been written.  And we are working with the senators who are in the Gang of Eight as they make progress, and they’ve made considerable progress, and that is worth noting.  Senator Schumer just the other day talked about where they are in that process and the progress that they’ve been making, and we were heartened by that.

But as the President said yesterday, we have to keep pushing.  We have to make sure that we follow through on this progress, and that that progress leads to a bill that has bipartisan support and that can be signed by this President.  And we’re not there yet.  Progress is being made.  It’s being made in the Senate, which is where the President hoped it would be made. And we are very much monitoring that process and engaging in that process.  But it’s not done yet, and I don’t want to prejudge a bill that hasn’t been written.

QUESTION: But if I could just press you on it, it does appear as though that Secretary Napolitano did today prejudge.  She said the triggers are not necessary.  Does the White House agree with that assessment?

MR. CARNEY:  I think what she was saying — and the assessment we do agree with — is that there are a variety of metrics by which you can measure, and we do measure, progress on border security.  And these are metrics that others use to measure border security, including Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and beyond the Senate, beyond the Congress.

So we’re working with Congress on this, with the Senate on this.  Progress has been made.  Border security is one of the key principles that the President has put forward that has to be part of comprehensive immigration reform.  He has demonstrated his seriousness on this issue, as has Secretary Napolitano.  But it is something that we’re — it’s not a done project.  We have to continue working on it.

Cut through all the verbiage, and Carney seemed to say precisely what Napolitano said: If Republicans demand that tougher border enforcement be a precondition for comprehensive immigration reform, they can forget about making a deal, now or ever.