Napolitano Stays at DHS, Immigration Reform Advocates Cheer

Increased enforcement under Napolitano may sway skeptics, advocates say.

January 14, 2013, 12:12 PM

Jan. 14, 2013— -- Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano will remain at her post during President Obama's second term, a development that could have implications for the debate over immigration reform.

Officials from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security confirmed to ABC/Univision on Monday that Napolitano will stay in her current job.

As Homeland Security chief, Napolitano oversees the bulk of the nation's immigration enforcement agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The federal government has beefed up resources dedicated to immigration enforcement during Napolitano's tenure. The government spent $18 billion in fiscal year 2012 to fund agencies like ICE and Border Patrol, more than what was spent all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a report released last week by the Migration Policy Institute.

Under Napolitano, the former Democratic governor of Arizona, the Obama administration has overseen a record pace of deportations of undocumented immigrants. Through Obama's first four years in office, 1.59 million people have been deported, including nearly 410,000 in fiscal year 2012, according to ICE statistics. By comparison, the George W. Bush administration deported roughly 2 million during his eight years in office. On average, Obama has deported roughly 12,000 more people per month than Bush.

Immigration reform advocates believe that Napolitano's record on enforcement could help prove to skeptics that enacting comprehensive reform won't pose a danger to national security.

"I think with Secretary Napolitano as the head of the Department of Homeland Security, it certainly is very hard to argue that the Obama administration isn't serious about enforcement. She has been very aggressive in enforcing the law," said Benjamin Johnson, the executive director of the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C. "She's bringing a lot of credibility and a lot of experience in making the case that we've done enforcement, and it's time to start thinking about other areas of immigration policy that have to be changed."

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that Napolitano's relationships on Capitol Hill forged during her interactions with lawmakers over the past four years could pay off when the White House presses Congress to pass a bill.

"This will move quickly," he said. "So, the less of a learning curve someone has, the better."

But Napolitano has also faced myriad complaints from those on both sides of the debate. The administration's enforcement policies have drawn the ire of Latino and immigrant-rights groups, who staged protests against Obama several times during last year's presidential campaign.

In part to assuage those concerns, Napolitano announced in August 2011 that immigration enforcement agencies would conduct a case-by-case review of deportation cases in an effort to reduce the deportation of undocumented immigrants who otherwise have no criminal record. DHS claims removals of people not considered "priority" cases (i.e. no criminal record, no past immigration violations, and not caught at the border) fell to 4 percent of all deportations in 2012, down from 25 percent in 2008.

But immigrant-rights groups note that only 2 percent of pending immigration cases have been closed since the "prosecutorial discretion" program was implemented, as the New York Times reported in June, and that families are still being separated by deportation

ICE also announced in December that it is scaling back a federal program called 287(g) that allows some local law enforcement officers to act as immigration enforcement agents. The program was unpopular with immigrant-rights groups, who said it led to racial profiling and mistrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities.

Napolitano reportedly developed the framework for what became the final version of the deferred action program, which allows certain young undocumented immigrant to apply for a temporary reprieve from deportation. Since it was enacted last summer, over 102,000 people have been granted a two-year stay from deportation under the program and can apply for work permits, according to USCIS statistics.

Despite her department's focus on enhanced immigration enforcement, her record hasn't been enough to satisfy many Republicans in Congress who could play a key role in a debate over a comprehensive immigration reform package.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in August accused ICE of "cooking the books to achieve their so-called 'record' deportation numbers for illegal immigrants," and that deportations have actually fallen during Obama's first term.

House Republicans sparred with Napolitano over deferred action during a July hearing over the "prosecutorial discretion" program for deportations and deferred action.

"That completely and totally destroys the constitutional framework of our government," then-Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) said of the administration's policies.

Immigration restrictionists fear that keeping Napolitano indicates that Obama will push for a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

"I think it shows that this administration plans to continue its existing policy, which is a state of perpetual amnesty," said Jessica Vaughn, director of policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Immigration advocates believe that Napolitano's strength will lie in attracting moderate Democrats and Republicans who might be on the fence about supporting an immigration bill.

"Members who are against immigration reform will never be satisfied, but what the administration can do is target members in the middle," said Noorani.

Added Johnson: "Arguments [from restrictionists] are going to look a lot more political because under Secretary Napolitano, it's clear that we have been doing enforcement first."

UPDATE:Not every immigrant-rights group cheered Napolitano's decision to stay. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network, citing the record deportations during her tenure, said, "Napolitano's continued presence in the President's cabinet undermines confidence in his commitment on immigration reform."

This piece was updated at 1:54 PM

Ted Hesson contributed reporting.

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