Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano says her department has the resources to deport about 400,000 aliens each year, and the new guidance her department issued will only change the makeup of who gets deported.
"There are 10 million or so illegal immigrants probably in the country and the Congress gives us the resources to remove approximately 400,000 per year," she said, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The question is, who are we going to prioritize. And we're very clear. We want to prioritize those who are convicted criminals. We want to prioritize those who are egregious immigration and repeat violators. We want to prioritize those who are security threats, those who have existing warrants."
Her appearance came a day after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency within her department that handles interior enforcement, announced it had deported a record 396,906 aliens in fiscal year 2011, which ended Sept. 30.
Of those deportations, nearly 55 percent were convicted criminals, and many of the others were repeat immigration violators or had just recently crossed the border.
Ms. Napolitano said fewer than 10 percent were rank-and-file immigrants working, studying or living in the U.S. illegally, and said that's by design — ICE has rewritten its priorities to try to maximize the number of criminals who are deported within the resources available.
The Obama administration is trying to walk a difficult line on deportations, and is pleasing neither side in the immigration debate. Immigrant-rights groups say deportations are too high, while those who want to see a crackdown say overlooking the broad swath of illegal immigrants amounts to de facto amnesty for those that don't get convicted of other crimes.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said ICE agents are becoming demoralized by the new guidance, and cited conversations he's had and a recent vote in which the union for ICE agents expressed it had lost confidence in ICE Director John Morton.
Mr. Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, took exception to Ms. Napolitano's facial expressions as he was raising the issues with her Wednesday.
"As a person who's worked with federal agents for years, when you hear this kind of comment and votes of no confidence — I've never heard of that — you should be paying real attention to them, not rolling your eyes at them," he said.
"I'm not rolling my eyes," Ms. Napolitano replied. "What I'm suggesting is that results matter here and priorities really matter, and that the results reflect the priorities we have set. And these are priorities that are consistent with prior administrations."
Ms. Napolitano said it costs her department about $30,000 to remove each person it deports, and said that doesn't include the costs to the Justice Department.
Ms. Napolitano also came under fire for what senators said was an "arrogant" attitude by Transportation Security Administration screeners at airports.
Senior senators promised to push the agency to give passengers a choice of screening and accused TSA employees of making some travelers feel targeted for wanting to go through a magnetometer rather than the full-body scans.
"Sometimes you get the impression they almost want to make you miss your plane because you have to go through the pat-down," said committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. "It's almost this arrogant disregard for real Americans who have to put up with this baloney."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, raised the issue, saying he's been forced twice to go through the scanning machines when he would have preferred another method of screening.
"Maybe I look like a terrorist," he quipped.
Mr. Leahy said when he's patted down sometimes other passengers going through screening will take out their cell cameras to photograph the spectacle of a senator being screened, and TSA employees will tell them photos are against the law.
"There is no such law," Mr. Leahy said.
Ms. Napolitano said passengers should have a choice and promised to work to improve screening, but also said she is proud of the safety record her department has amassed.
"I also think that we have the safest aviation system in the world, and there's a reason for that," she said.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.