Janet Napolitano: Immigration Hero or Villain?

PHOTO: Napolitano

One of the most high-profile players in immigration debate has enemies on all sides, but she may be one of the single biggest reasons that reform is possible in 2013.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been bashed by immigrant rights groups for ramping up deportations to record levels during her four-year tenure in the Obama administration.

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At the same time, she's drawn indignation from a contingent of her own staff. After she ordered immigration agents to focus on high-priority cases in 2011, agents revolted. Union leaders for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sued Napolitano in August 2012, claiming that she was violating the Constitution and federal law by telling them to ignore some undocumented immigrants.

Despite the ire from both extremes of the immigration debate, Napolitano typically remains in the background. President Barack Obama has taken the credit -- and scorn -- for both increased deportations and landmark immigration programs like deferred action. The program, which allowed more than 150,000 young undocumented people to live and work in the U.S. since it was enacted last summer, was signed into action by Napolitano.

Still, the Homeland Security secretary's record will face scrutiny next week, when she testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on immigration reform. Even with the avalanche of attention that will follow the State of the Union address the day before, she will likely be under the biggest spotlight since assuming her position in 2009.

Napolitano has arguably done more than any other administration official to shape Obama's image on immigration. As the head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), she oversees the agencies charged with protecting the border, regulating the flow of trade and combating illegal immigration. She led DHS to 1.6 million deportations during Obama's first term -- a record pace -- while increasingly prioritizing criminal removals.

That's helped shape the administration's case for immigration reform. The president routinely cites the record number of "boots on the ground" along the nation's borders to emphasize how the U.S. is prepared to combat future illegal immigration.

DHS and the secretary have also made it clear that they've wanted to put their energy into priority removals, which means a focus on the criminal population. In a June 2011 memo, ICE Director John Morton ordered agents to exercise "prosecutorial discretion," telling them to determine whether a case was potentially low priority and hence not the best use of agency resources. Two months later, Napolitano issued a review of more than 411,000 backlogged deportation cases for possible dismissal. The review was the first of its kind, but The New York Times reported that as of June 2012, fewer than 2 percent of those cases had been closed.

President Obama also touts an increased focus on criminal removals during his tenure, as illustrated by a comment he made during a November presidential debate:

"[I]f we're going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families," he said. "And that's what we've done."

This message, while helpful to the president in promoting his immigration record, isn't entirely accurate. His administration has heaped up record deportations, but the vast majority aren't what most would consider "gang bangers," according to ICE statistics on removals.

Of the 396,906 removals by ICE in the 2011 fiscal year, 45 percent were non-criminal and 24 percent were for misdemeanors, what ICE calls Level 3 crimes. That means that 69 percent of the agency's deportations were of non-criminals or low-level offenders.

That year, 12 percent were for what ICE defines as Level 2 crimes, a mix of misdemeanors and felonies, including burglary, larceny and minor drug offenses. The most serious crimes, Level 1, represented 19 percent of removals. That includes crimes like major drug offenses, rape, murder and kidnapping.

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