Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Friday that illegal immigrant students and young adults who meet the criteria in last year's failed legalization bill in Congress are not a "priority" for her department's law enforcement efforts.
Wading into an increasingly thorny debate, Miss Napolitano said she cannot unilaterally ignore deportations laws for broad groups of illegal immigrants, but said students and young adults who would have been legalized had last year's "Dream Act" legislation passed Congress are not a chief target of federal authorities.
"I will say, and can say, that you know what? They are not, that group, if they truly meet all those criteria, and we see very few of them actually in the immigration system, if they truly meet those [criteria], they're not the priority," the secretary said at an event sponsored by NDN, a progressive think tank and advocacy group, on the future of the nation's border policies.
"The reason we set priorities is so that the focus could be on those in the country who are also committing other illegal acts," she said.
Miss Napolitano also insisted that the border is more secure now than in the past, and said that claims to the contrary are not only hurting business in those communities along the border, they show disrespect to those trying to enforce immigration laws.
"It is simply inaccurate to state, as too many have, that the border with Mexico is overrun or out of control," she said. "This statement — I think sometimes it's made to score some political points — but it's wrong. It's just plain wrong."
Alan Krieger, mayor of Yuma, a city on the border in the southwest corner of Arizona, said the questions about the security of the region do hurt, but they are based on false perceptions.
"I can't afford to let the overriding message of 'border wars' simply rob us of an economic opportunity to create jobs," he said. "Yuma, Arizona, is safe, secure and ready for business. And that rings true for a lot of other communities."
By the same token, he also criticized the calls to boycott Arizona that came after the state passed its law cracking down on illegal immigrants last year.
Immigrant-rights advocates say they feel betrayed by the Obama administration, which has set records for deportations over the last two years. Earlier this week they announced a 20-city tour to try to pressure President Obama to halt deportations in order to protect illegal immigrants while Congress remains locked in a stalemate over the issue.
Mr. Obama himself this week said he cannot ignore deportation laws, but he said those students who would have been eligible for the Dream Act are people "we want to see succeed."
Both Miss Napolitano and John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Friday that those individuals are not a focus of their efforts.
"If you take a look at the record, people that fit within the confines of the Dream Act, there are in fact very, very few deportations of those kinds of individuals," Mr. Morton said.
Known by advocates as "dreamers," immigrants who would have met Dream Act requirements are among the toughest cases in the immigration system. In most cases they were brought to the U.S. by their parents, had no say in the decision, and often have no ties to the countries where they were born.
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