Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security: A Reality Check on Immigration Enforcement and the Border

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano gave a speech on immigration and Border security today. While no new policy was announced, she sought to contextualize and cool much of the heated rhetoric surrounding enforcement of our broken immigration system and issues surrounding border security.

Secretary Napolitano speech got to the core of the current debate surrounding immigration: how does the federal government enforce an immigration system which is clearly broken?

The Obama administration has taking much political heat from both the right, for not enforcing our immigration laws and from the left for enforcing them too vigorously. This speech highlighted the paradox of these competing notions. It also engaged the idea that the Department of Homeland Security over the last 3 years had nearly completely overhauled how the federal government enforces immigration laws. The speech explored these consequences and directly confronted the confusion that these changes may have caused. In a time when Congressional legislative action on immigration reform is looking increasingly less likely, she was emphatic, that more then anything what was needed most was a more intelligent way of talking about our broken immigration system.

These incongruent reactions make two things clear: First, two opposites can’t simultaneously be true; and second, it’s time for a reality check when it comes to talking about immigration enforcement.

In vigorously attacking the notion that the administration is not doing enough to enforce our immigration laws the Secretary pointed out that along the border there have been unprecedented resources allocated and that the American side of the border has never been safer:

The least we owe them is an honest appraisal of their hard work and that appraisal is that, thanks to them, the border is safer than it has been in decades. We have committed unprecedented resources to this effort and, this year, will see yet again a historic drop in illegal crossings and more and more contraband seized. So let’s take the “border is out of control” myth out of the equation.

She was particularly frustrated by those on capitol hill who said that there could be no movement on immigration until the border situation was taken care of. However it was when she began speaking about the administrations interior immigration enforcement that her tone changed. The Secretary stressed that what needed to occur was a federal legislative overhaul and that from process standpoint DHS can only do so much to try to help the situation. In discussing DHS’s Immigration and Custom Enforcement memo of discretion which would prioritize the deportation of criminal immigrants, she stated that while the number of immigrants deported would again be at record levels, the composition of those deported would be much different:

This year, I expect removals will again be at historic levels. When we announce these year-end removal numbers, some will undoubtedly say that DHS, and the Administration more broadly, are doing our jobs too effectively. What those critics will ignore is that while the overall number of individuals removed will exceed prior years, the composition of that number will have fundamentally changed. It will consist of more convicted criminals, recent border crossers, egregious immigration law violators, and immigration fugitives than ever before.

What this speech did an excellent job of is showing the flaws in the current immigration system which does not adequately deal with immigrants currently in the country but also does not find a way to process future immigrants. This is beyond DHS’s control and while things are far from perfect, the administration and DHS are doing their best to enforce the current laws but to do so in a more humane way. As Secretary Napolitano has noted in the past, the status will have to do until Congress decides to act.

For Secretary Napolitano’s full speech please check here.

For a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet on borer security and enforcement please check here.

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