WASHINGTON -- Despite appeals from immigration reform advocates and some Congressional Democrats, the Obama administration will not block deportations of young people who grew up in the United States, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Friday.
After the Senate voted down the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow legal status for some undocumented young people, immigrant rights groups have pushed for the Obama administration to use its executive authority to stop deporting those who would have benefited from the law.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and immigration reform groups announced yesterday a plan for a nationwide campaign to end deportation of DREAMers, as they have been coined, and of parents or spouses of American citizens. Current immigration law offers few options to those who want to stay in the United States to be with their families or because they have lived here since childhood. To receive legal status, those who entered the country illegally must return to their native country for 10 years to wait for a visa -- sometimes even longer -- separating them from family.
At an event sponsored by progressive think tank NDN, Napolitano said she was sympathetic to students who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act, but could not exempt them from deportation.
"I am not going to stand here and say that there are whole categories that we will, by executive fiat, exempt from the current immigration system, as sympathetic as we feel towards them," she said. "But I will say that group...are not the priority."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton echoed her statements, saying the administration cannot block deportations for certain groups. Still, with more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, Morton admitted his agency uses discretion "every day" to select how to police immigration. ICE can deport about 400,000 people per year with its current resources, Morton said.
"There are a lot of efforts underway to have good, sensible government in the absence of immigration reform, while stating at the same time that it is necessary," Morton said. "Everyone recognizes that we need a different system than we have now."
Advocates of expanded immigrant rights argue the agency's actions do not match its rhetoric, particularly over enforcement programs that are meant to target "the worst of the worst." The key immigration enforcement initiative, a finger-print sharing program called Secure Communities, is supposed to help ICE find undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes and may be a danger to others. But the program also nets a large number of undocumented immigrants who are never convicted of crimes, including women who call the police to report domestic violence or people who are brought in on charges that are later dropped.
About a quarter of the people in deportation proceedings due to Secure Communities are non-criminals, according to data analyzed by National Day Laborer Network, Center for Constitutional Rights and the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardoza School of Law.
Napolitano dismissed the figures, saying the numbers are "still early" and do not include people in prison who will later be deported under the program. She said over time the percentage of non-criminals would go down.
She added that some of the people who has not been convicted were in fact guilty of committing crimes, but law enforcement had chosen to give them time served and send them to Secure Communities rather than making a criminal charge.
"It looks like there was no crime committed, but when you go in and look at the arrest plot, why were they getting fingerprinted to begin with? There was a crime there," she said.
Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Network, said the administration "has conflated criminality with undocumented status" and called the agency's response to potential racial profiling and civil liberties problems in the program "astonishingly insufficient."
"It sort of inverts the presumption of innocence when it comes to immigrants," Newman said. "There's no reason why people at the point of being booked should be screened for immigration status. If they were really serious about deporting only serious criminals, they would screen only after people had been convicted of a crime."
Napolitano said the agency is aware of the issue and has a civil rights unit dedicated to looking through data to make sure specific districts are not out of sync with overall enforcement trends.
"One of the things I want to make sure Secure Communities is not is a conduit for racial profiling or local law enforcement inappropriately seeking to be immigration officers," she said. "That's not what Secure Communities is designed to do."
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