Funding for National Guard troops on the U.S.-Mexico border runs out in another month, but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday she would like to see them stay there — if Congress or the Defense Department can find the money.
Ms. Napolitano, a former prosecutor and then governor of Arizona who is the Obama administration’s point person on the border and immigration, also defended new guidelines that immigrant rights groups say could halt deportations of 300,000 illegal immigrants, saying her goal is to focus on immigrants with criminal records rather than rank-and-file illegal workers and their families.
But she demurred when asked if agencies under her purview are deporting enough illegal immigrants.
“Could we deport more if there were funds available, not just to us but to Justice Department, which has to handle all the removal and deportation proceedings at that level? You know, that’s kind of a hard question to answer. Ask Congress,” she said at a round-table hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
The new guidelines she issued two weeks ago give immigration authorities discretion to halt deportation proceedings if they think the process would create a hardship for the illegal immigrant or his or her family or if the person is in school or from a military family.
Republicans in Congress have called the move backdoor “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, and some have called for hearings into the new policy.
For her part, Ms. Napolitano said the goal is to focus on criminals.
Of the 400,000 illegal immigrants deported in 2010, about half had criminal records. Ms. Napolitano said she wants to see that ratio change so that more criminals are being deported while the number of noncriminal immigrants being deported is reduced.
Asked whether she feared blowback if someone released from deportation proceedings is later charged with a serious crime, she said, “You’ve got to take some risks sometime.”
But she said there is a risk on the other hand of focusing on noncriminal immigrants at the expense of getting dangerous gang members and convicts off the streets.
Immigration enforcement is usually divided into two distinct areas: along the border, where the battle is against new arrivals, and in the interior, where authorities grapple with those living and working here illegally — in many cases for decades.
The Obama administration has continued the buildup of U.S. Border Patrol agents begun under President George W. Bush and, like Mr. Bush, has announced its own surge of National Guard troops on the border.
Their deployment has already been extended once, and Ms. Napolitano said she is looking at how to keep them there longer.
“They’re there through the end of the fiscal year. We think it’s a great add-on and a great support to the border agents that are there,” she said.
“So, as in so many things, it comes down to whether DOD has the resources to maintain the guard at the border,” she said.