Napolitano: Solution to immigrant crisis is reform, not deportations

The Obama administration on Tuesday made its most forceful push yet this Congress to reform the country’s immigration laws.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Defense Under Secretary Clifford Stanley laid out a laundry list of national security-related financial and educational reasons why Congress needs to push forward with the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

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Napolitano said the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not have the resources necessary to remove the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally. The DREAM Act, she said, would grant conditional citizenship to people who pose little or no threat to society and allow DHS to pursue the most harmful illegal immigrants.

“[It] would allow us to remove DREAM-ers from the universe of individuals we need to be concerned with and expend resources for removal purposes, and we can further concentrate our resources on the priorities that we’ve laid out,” Napolitano told The Hill after a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Versions of the DREAM Act have failed to make it through Congress over the past decade, even with Democratic majorities in both chambers. It is widely seen as a political non-starter in the divided 112th Congress. 

Tuesday’s hearing before the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee came in the wake of a memo issued by the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week that approved a broader breadth of discretion for agency officials when considering whether to deport someone through the Secure Communities program.

Under the guidelines in the memo, agents would be allowed to use their discretion in the field to decide against deporting an illegal immigrant who would be eligible for a path toward citizenship if the DREAM Act were made law. 

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, raised concerns about “loopholes” in the DREAM Act that would allow the Obama administration a broad discretionary reach to decide who should be granted conditional citizenship.

Cornyn questioned Napolitano about provisions that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants, even though they might have multiple criminal convictions or been convicted of voter fraud, or not have met education or military requirements.

Cornyn pushed for language in the bill that would render people ineligible under the DREAM Act if they had been arrested for offenses such as driving under the influence of alcohol, possession of drugs, burglary, theft or assault. 

Napolitano said the administration would be open to discussing the possibility of including such language, but stressed that officers and agents in the field should have the authority to consider each potentially eligible person on a case-by-case basis.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Napolitano if the administration would be open to giving Congress more oversight of the bill’s implementation by notifying the committee each time someone who is eligible for the DREAM Act had his or her deportation deferred.

“We would be willing to discuss that with you, a process for that, yes,” said Napolitano. “We want to be very transparent about how we are exercising the authorities the statutes give us.”