Americans agree on a need to overhaul immigration laws but lack consensus on what should be done, the head of the Customs and Border Protection agency said Thursday.
Alan Bersin, the agency's commissioner, said it will require "an act of political leadership" to find common ground.
"I aspire to immigration reform," he told an audience of business and civic leaders at Point Loma Nazarene University. "The difficulty is: 'What are the constituent elements of it?"'
Bersin, who oversees the nation's ports of entry and the Border Patrol, said everyone surveyed in a hypothetical room would agree the immigration system is broken but each one would have a different answer on what to do about it.
"There isn't a person in this room who would, if I asked you to raise your hand to say that the current immigration system is not broken, not one hand would come up,” he said. “But if we started talking about the different ways in which the system needs to be reformed, we'd have as many different opinions as there are people in the audience."
His comments mirror skepticism in the White House about the prospects of acting on immigration this year amid a tough new law in Arizona. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said Thursday there isn't enough support to move forward on a stalled Senate initiative.
Last week, President Barack Obama said there was no appetite in Congress for another big legislative fight. On Wednesday, he said he wanted to start work on immigration legislation this year.
Bersin said any immigration overhaul should be based on principles of secure borders, a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for people living in the U.S. illegally. He referred to the guest-worker program as "the secure flow of labor."
Any path to citizenship would not be "overnight," he said, and Americans would not tolerate another amnesty like a 1986 law that paved the way for 2.7 million people to become citizens.
Bersin said illegal immigrants would have to pay taxes and acknowledge they were not allowed to be in the United States.
But, he said, the government cannot deport 8 million to 10 million people.
"This is a nation of immigrants," he said. "We all come from somewhere else."
Bersin is one of 15 Obama appointees who circumvented the usual process of Senate confirmation. Before his recess appointment in March, he served in a position created by the Obama administration to handle border issues including illegal immigration and relations with Mexico in its war against drug cartels.
Like Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, he knows the border well. He was the "border czar" during the administration of President Bill Clinton and a former U.S. attorney in San Diego.