Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday that the government is poised to set another record for deportations in just-ended fiscal year 2011, and said the number proves the administration is not pursuing a backdoor amnesty, as critics charge.
“We cannot, on the one hand, be on the verge of removing, for the third consecutive year, a record-breaking number of unlawful individuals from this country, with the highest number of criminal removals in American history and, at the same time, be abrogating our law enforcement responsibilities,” Ms. Napolitano said in a speech at American University, billed as a “reality check” on the state of immigration enforcement in the Obama administration.
President Obama has come under fire from both sides of the immigration debate: Hispanic advocates say he’s deporting too many people, while those who favor a crackdown say he’s unilaterally imposing an amnesty.
Ms. Napolitano said both charges cannot be true, and said she has tried to chart a middle path that calls for focusing deportation efforts on those who have long criminal records that stretch beyond immigration violations.
The Obama administration has granted immigration authorities broad latitude to halt deportation cases against broad swaths of illegal immigrants who meet criteria such as college enrollment, or having family members who depend on them for support.
Critics say that amounts to amnesty, but she said it is a prioritization of resources.
“It makes sense to prioritize our finite resources on removing a Mexican citizen who is wanted for murder in his home country ahead of a Mexican national who is the sole provider for his American-citizen spouse,” she said.
She said she has “grown weary” of charges that the border is not secure, and said that is a disservice to the immigration authorities in her department who enforce it.
Critics, though, point to measures that suggest the administration is leaving some tools unused.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said the Obama administration has severely curtailed raids on worksites to net illegal immigrants. And he pointed to statistics that showed only 44 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border is considered under “operational control.”
“If we are going to have smart and effective immigration enforcement, we need to enforce all of our immigration laws and turn off the jobs magnet that encourages illegal immigration,” he said.
While there is near-universal agreement on border enforcement, enforcing immigration laws in the U.S. interior, where an estimated 10 million illegal immigrants live and many work, is a thornier issue.
Many in Mr. Obama’s political base want less enforcement that targets those living here already, and cite record deportations as evidence this administration is moving in the wrong direction.
Facing that charge, Mr. Obama last week, in a round table with Hispanic reporters, said the deportation numbers were artificially high because they include those caught at the border, thanks to enhanced border enforcement.
“The statistics are actually a little deceptive because what we’ve been doing is, with the stronger border enforcement, we’ve been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back. That is counted as a deportation, even though they may have only been held for a day or 48 hours, sent back — that’s counted as a deportation,” he said.
But the statistics show the number of people returned after being apprehended on the border is down substantially, while deportations of those caught in the interior has risen.
The ratio of those with criminal convictions, however, has indeed risen significantly, from about one-third of deportees at the beginning of the administration to about half in fiscal year 2010. And more than two-thirds of the ones without criminal convictions were either recent border-crossers or repeat immigration violators, she said.