PHOENIX — Arizona took center stage in the national immigration debate Tuesday as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured the state's border with Mexico and Sen. John McCain defended his proposed immigration overhaul to an angry crowd in a Phoenix suburb.
The presence of the top officials is the latest sign that Arizona will play a prominent role in the immigration debate as President Barack Obama looks to make it a signature issue of his second term.
Napolitano toured the border near Nogales with the highest-ranking official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the incoming chairman of the Senate's homeland security committee and an Arizona congressman. Napolitano, Arizona's former governor, said afterward that comprehensive immigration reform will strengthen the nation's border against criminals and other threats.
Also Tuesday, McCain hosted two town hall meetings in Arizona, during which he defended his immigration plan to upset residents concerned about border security. A bipartisan group of senators — including Arizona Republicans McCain and Jeff Flake — want assurances on border security as Congress weighs what could be the biggest changes to immigration law in nearly 30 years.
Immigration activists and elected officials say it's only natural for Arizona to continue to take the forefront in the national conversation on immigration after years of internal debate on the topic.
During a heated town hall gathering in the Phoenix suburb of Sun Lakes, McCain said the border near Yuma is largely secure, but he said smugglers are using the border near Tucson to pump drugs into Phoenix.