WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is defending President Barack Obama's decision to stop deporting many illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and let them apply for work permits.
"Our nation's immigration laws must be enforced in a strong and sensible manner," Napolitano said in prepared remarks submitted to the House Judiciary Committee. "But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case."
In the remarks, Napolitano described the plan and defended the administration's decision. The secretary was appearing before Congress for the first time since the plan was announced.
Obama announced in June that he was easing immigration laws by executive order for many illegal immigrants brought to the country as children. Under the policy change, illegal immigrants would be eligible to avoid deportation if they can prove they are 30 years old or younger, have been in the United States at least five years, arrived before they turned 16, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED or are currently in school and don't have a criminal record. They can also apply for a work permit that will be good for two years, with no limit on how many times it can be renewed.
The policy change could affect more than a million illegal immigrants and partially achieves the goals of the so-called DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for many young illegal immigrants.
Napolitano has said DHS has broad authority to use discretion when deciding which illegal immigrants to deport, and said Thursday that the recent Supreme Court decision striking down much of Arizona's strict immigration law backs up that authority.
"Indeed as the Supreme Court noted in its recent decision on the Arizona immigration law, 'a special feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials,'" Napolitano said.
Republicans have widely criticized the program, calling it "backdoor amnesty" that circumvents the will of Congress.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has been among the harshest critics of the administration's immigration enforcement policies.
"The administration's amnesty agenda is a win for illegal immigrants but a loss for Americans," Smith said in his prepared opening statement. "Time and again the Department of Homeland Security has gone out of its way to avoid the enforcement of immigration laws. The Department of Homeland Security's policy of non-enforcement will continue to cost innocent Americans their jobs."
Smith also said Thursday that he worried that giving illegal immigrants the right to legally work in the United States would harm an already struggling economy. He also questioned how DHS officials intended to combat fraud.
"The Obama administration's amnesty is also a magnet for fraud," Smith said. "Many illegal immigrants will falsely claim they came to the U.S. as children and this administration refuses to take the steps necessary to check whether their claims are true or not."
Napolitano said DHS officials are still deciding what documents will be required for immigrants to prove they qualify to be spared from deportation and receive a work permit. Details of what will be required should be available by Aug. 1, Napolitano said. She added that she didn't know how many illegal immigrants would eventually get work permits.
"There is no real estimate. We don't know," she said.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, also questioned the administration's legal authority to change the policy without congressional action and asked Napolitano to rescind the policy.
"I will not rescind it; it's right under the law," Napolitano said.