By some measures, President Obama has turned out to be tougher on illegal immigration than his predecessor. His administration has expanded programs to expel illegal immigrants who commit crimes and has been cracking down on businesses that employ undocumented workers. Numbers are up. At the same time, they’ve challenged a new law in Arizona that takes an aggressive approach by employing law enforcement to finger people who could potentially be in the country without papers. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Eve Conant about the administration’s goals.
How is your approach different from that of the Bush administration?
I’ve always viewed enforcement from the perspective of a prosecutor. Prosecutors set priorities based on endangerment to public safety and levels of culpability. The priorities were somewhat different than the prior administration’s: a focus on criminal aliens, particularly those who’ve been convicted, and also in the work-site arena to develop cases against employers. The law involving employers needs to be updated because it doesn’t have a lot of the deterrent value that one would wish it had. We need bigger fines. Some of the elements are unnecessarily complicated when you’re going after an employer who is just continuously and knowingly hiring illegal labor.
What happens politically if your fiscal-year statistics show you’ve deported fewer people this year?
Well, it is more, significantly more.
Actually, I have figures that you are only at 265,000 right now, well below 400,000.
I think the significant number is those who are convicted criminal aliens and, if I recall correctly, ’09 was a record number over ’08, and 2010 will be a record number over ’09.
What about overall deportations?
Numbers against employers are going up. Numbers against felony fugitives are, I believe, going up. The one number that has gone down somewhat are administrative removals of workers, and we have not given amnesty to workers. But you are right, we have set priorities and we have set priorities putting criminal aliens first.
Let’s talk about perception, which is that under Bush we were seeing televised raids and he looked tough on illegal immigration. You are doing paper audits and smaller raids, without cameras. Has there been a decision to not advertise your efforts?
I wouldn’t put it that way. I’d say we’ve done this from a prosecutorial perspective based on results, notwhat media may choose to cover. By going after employers, we can cover a lot more.
Do you get frustrated by the perception that Obama is soft on illegal immigration?
Yes. Any prosecutor will tell you that part of the job is setting real priorities and judging yourself by the results.
The lawsuit against Arizona feeds that perception. When do you think it will change?
Well, the lawsuit [against Arizona] involves something very different, whether you’re going to have 50 immigration laws or one immigration law, so that’s a different issue. That does not excuse the need for Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, to get to the table and update and improve the nation’s immigration laws.
When Obama first came to office and you had your first meetings, was there any debate on cutting back on the Bush-era raids?
The only conversations we had were to the effect of that our job was to enforce the law, even as he was advocating that the law itself needs to be updated and improved.