Janet Napolitano: Immigration Hero or Villain?

ICE did not provide a detailed breakdown of the criminal charges at the time of this publication, but it's important to note that immigration crimes, like attempting to enter the country illegally, can be misdemeanors and felonies, and count toward the tally of criminal deportations.

A broader set of statistics looking at removals in that same year by both ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shows that 23 percent of removals were for drug crimes, 23 percent for criminal traffic offenses and 20 percent for immigration offenses. Those tallies mix misdemeanor and felony crimes.

The message that Obama has prioritized serious criminals rings hollow for some grassroots immigrant rights groups, who criticized him for sticking with Napolitano in his second term. On one hand, the president is pitching an immigration reform plan that would create a pathway to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants. On the other, he's deporting many people who might qualify for such a plan if it became law.

"We're not happy about it, we think it's a failed opportunity for the president to separate himself from his last four years," said Sarahi Uribe, the national campaign coordinator for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). "So far, Janet Napolitano has terrorized our communities through the record number of deportations that DHS has pursued...we were hoping he would have gone with someone who had a record of pro-immigrant policies and pro-worker policies."

In some past instances, the president has amended policy to follow his beliefs. In February 2011, he told the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that prohibits same-sex marriage, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. After Congress failed to pass a bill that would have created a path to citizenship for certain undocumented young people, he enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in June of the following year to give DREAMers a way to live and work in the U.S.

Some will say that the mix of strong enforcement and pro-migrant programs like deferred action have created the political space to allow the immigration reform debate to move forward, and that halting deportations now could derail negotiations. "If you want to end deportation, the way to do it is to pass comprehensive immigration reform," said Simon Rosenberg, the president and founder of NDN, a progressive think tank and advocacy group. "There is a limit to what can be done administratively, but, frankly, I think they've pushed the envelope pretty hard."

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a key player in the Senate negotiations over immigration reform, has already said that President Obama "poisoned the well" for Republicans to engage on the issue when he started deferred action last summer. If he and Napolitano halted deportations now -- even for non-criminals -- Republicans working on reform might scatter.

To illustrate the tightrope that the administration is walking, look back to when Napolitano was reappointed as DHS chief last month. While some immigrant rights groups balked, others -- especially those inside the Beltway, more closely connected to reform negotiations -- lauded her return.

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