The weak economy is giving the government a unique chance to toughen its efforts against illegal immigration, but officials need to act before the window of opportunity closes, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.
Napolitano said Friday that the department has seen a "pretty significant decrease" in illegal immigrants crossing over from Mexico because the number of available jobs in the United States has decreased.
"I think we need to move and take advantage of that," she said at a briefing with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials.
Napolitano -- at the helm of her department for two and a half weeks now -- said she wants to keep new border security efforts "moving fast," perhaps even "accelerate" them, because, "You can reasonably anticipate that when our economy comes back -- and it will -- it could be accompanied by another wave of illegal immigration."
A DHS official told FOX News that, among the items on her list, Napolitano wants to get moving on completing the security fence along the southern border. Most of the 670-mile fence has been completed, but more than 60 miles -- mostly in Texas -- remain unfinished.
While Napolitano has often criticized the fence construction, the DHS official said, "The secretary is a huge supporter of the right mix at the right places."
According to the DHS official, Napolitano also wants to "accelerate" efforts to mandate the E-verify program, which allows employers to verify the legal status of workers online, free of charge. The program is currently a volunteer-based system, with only some employers participating, so Congress would have to take action to give it any legal or regulatory backing.
The official said that, with illegal immigration down, Napolitano plans to beef up her message of support for congressional action.
"This is one of the things that she wants to push to make sure that the illegal immigrant population comes under control," the official said.
Napolitano also wants to act fast to expand her department's intelligence-gathering capabilities.
"You can't just put a dome over the United States and keep bad people or bad things out, so you've got to have the ability to have some intelligence," she told CBP officials at Friday's briefing.
Asked to explain how the economic downturn has reduced illegal immigration, Napolitano said the "lull" is driven by a loss of construction jobs -- which she dubbed "a prime draw" -- and a loss of "tourism-related jobs" in the United States.
A study out last month from the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute concurred. It found that illegal immigrants "are motivated, in large part, by employment prospects in the United States." The study went on to say that estimates of illegal immigration have consistently increased over the past eight years, except for two periods: the recession of 2001-2002 and the start of the current economic downturn.
In fact, according to CBP statistics, the number of illegal aliens apprehended at the border has fallen significantly in the past several years, dropping 21 percent in the last year alone.
Meanwhile, Napolitano's not the only one involved with CBP hoping to take advantage of the economic downturn.
"We received an all-time record of over 6,000 (employment) applications last week for border patrol agents," Christine Gaugler, CBP's head of human resources, said at Friday's briefing. "The economy is actually having an impact on the number of applications that are coming in ... and we're hoping to capitalize on that."
As of last month, CBP had 18,408 border patrol agents stationed along the nation's borders -- 16,800 of them on the southern border -- and CBP is hoping to hire close to 2,000 more agents in the next couple of years.
CBP spokesman Michael Friel said a poor economy may deter illegal immigrants, but it does not deter terrorists or other criminals.
"From a personnel standpoint, we feel like we have a need to build up those resources," he said.