Sparks Fly Over Immigration Policy at Senate Judiciary Hearing
By Ellen Cannon
Yesterday, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Janet Napolitano, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what was often a contentious environment. Ranking Republican senator Chuck Grassley grilled Napolitano over the issue of DHS’s immigration policy which he suggested was “deceptive and flouting the rule of law”. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) stated that “immigration authorities had no confidence in her leadership and suspected her agenda was really “large scale amnesty legislation.” (D. Millbank, www.washingtonpost.com, 10/20/2011)
The tone expressed by Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary was, in contrast, non-combative and welcoming. In his opening remarks he thanked the Department of Homeland Security for its efforts in helping to rebuild Vermont in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. He offered praise to Craig Fugate, the Administrator for FEMA, and his staff for their efforts in Vermont.
In his printed opening remarks to the hearings,Senator Leahy framed the immigration issue in a tone that would sharply differ on the issue of immigration policy from the Republicans on the committee. He said, “I trust it s finally time to renew a discussion of comprehensive immigration reform, a discussion that went off track after the senate passed a bipartisan bill in 2006…The kind of change brought about by comprehensive immigration reform depends on persistence and determination. I look forward to the day when to paraphrase President Obama, barricades begin to fall and bigotry begins to fade. Then, not only laws, but hearts and minds, will change and new doors of opportunity will swing open for immigrants who want to live the American dream…”(Transcript of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 10/19/11)
Senator Leahy went on to compliment DHS for their review of more than 300,000 pending deportation cases trying to determine who should be deported. His view on criteria for deportation would be sharply opposed by Republicans on the committee. Leahy said, “We can agree that dangerous criminals should remain at the top of the list, but we do not need to expend significant resources detaining and deporting non-citizens who have no criminal record and pose no threat. This is true of the inspiring young students and soldiers who advocate for the enactment of the DREAM ACT. And it will be true of the many other immigrants at risk of deportation, from meat packing workers in Iowa to dairy farm workers in Vermont.”
Leahy’s reference to the DREAM ACT refers to a legislative effort largely carved out by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), which addresses the needs of undocumented students. Senator Durbin, the second ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ranking Republican member, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), expressed a far harsher and highly critical role of the administration and of Secretary Napolitano’s immigration plan.
Senator Grassley noted that one of the most critical role’s he plays as a senator on the Judiciary Committee is legislative oversight. Transparency and accurate reporting of empirical data, he noted, were essential to this task. However, he told Secretary Napolitano that under her leadership neither accuracy of data or transparency of process is taking place. Instead he accused DHS of lacking credibility, padding immigration numbers, embellishing data, and practicing deceptive marketing. He offered several examples of writing to both the President and DHS for clarification on specific processes that are being employed but noted that he received no response, or limited responses, and no transparency.
Senator Grassley stated, “I am frustrated about the administration’s deceptive marketing tactics and claiming that they have deported more undocumented people than ever before. The secretary continues to use statistics that are inflated and inconsistent with the official data produced by the Office of Immigration Statistics. That office has been around since 1883. So I would like to know why the secretary cherry picks what numbers she wants to use and refuses to use the statistics provided by the Office of Immigration Reform.” Transcript of Senate Judiciary Hearing, 10/19/2011)
Senator Grassley went on to discuss Secretary Napolitano’s reliance on figures and methodologies provided by ICE. Underscoring the content of a detailed story appearing in the Washington Post, entitled “Unusual Methods Help ICE Break Deportation Records,” Grassley argued that ICE’s methodology was questionable and essentially resulted in DHS padding the deportation figures. Senator Grassley said, “”Homeland Security personnel, according to the Washington Post article, are encouraging immigration officials to increase the overall renew-removal numbers.” Furthermore, according to Grassley, “Even the President acknowledged that the numbers are dubious. During a recent online discussion aimed at Hispanic voters, President Obama said that, “The statistics are a little deceptive.”(Transcript of Senate Judiciary Committee, 10/19/2011)
Grassley went on to state that “there is funny business going on” and asked Napolitano for reassurances that the Secretary and DHS were not using “creative ways to keep many undocumented people in this country.”
Senator Grassley expressed deep concern about an August 18, 2011 memo in which she announced an initiative to establish a working group to sort through an untold number of cases currently pending before the immigration and federal courts to determine if they can be “administratively closed.” Combined, he said, these directives are alarming especially to those of us who believe in the rule of law.”
Senator Grassley was also concerned about the “administration’s inconsistent position when it comes to suing states for enacting various immigration laws.” He wanted legal clarification as to how the administration sues some states like Arizona and Alabama but not states that ignore the federal law with regard to immigration.
In particular, Senator Grassley expressed concerns about immigration procedures within Cook County, Illinois. Senator Grassley directed the following question to Secretary Napolitano: “I have concerns that this administration chooses some states to sue and turns a blind eye to places that are like Cook County, Illinois, that refuse to cooperate with the federal government on immigration matters. Have you had any discussion with the Department of Justice about suing cities or states that harbor undocumented immigrants? And what do you think about Cook County’s ordinance. Have you had any contact with them about their ordinance?
In response to this question Napolitano said, “I have not had any communication myself with Cook County. But I will say that one of the key tools we are suing to enforce the priorities we have set with respect to removals is the installation of Secure Communities throughout the country in jails and prisons. The huge majority of jurisdictions have no problem with this. We have been improving this system as we’ve been doing the installation. We intend and expect to be completed.”
In September 2011, the Cook County Board of Commissions passed an ordinance that allows suspected illegal immigrants jailed in misdemeanor and felony cases to be freed despite federal requests to have them detained for deportation. The measure passed by a vote of 10-5. According to Cook County Board President, Toni Preckwinkle, the principle cause behind this vote was financial. According to the Chicago Tribune, “abiding by the federal immigration ‘detainer” requests costs the county roughly #15 million per year, or $143 per detainee every day and the federal government offers no re-imbursement.(www.chicagotribune.com9/8/2011) In addition, the Secure Communities program gives immigration agents access to fingerprints collected at jails which is viewed as controversial among a sizable portion of the Chicago electorate, especially in the Hispanic community. (www.huffingtonpost.com10/5/2011)
States which attempted to “opt out’ of the program due to its initial regulations which permitted this, include Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts.
Immigration laws will be a hotly debated issue during the upcoming primaries, political debates, and the 2012 election. For many voters immigration will be a critical issue calling for the mobilization of communities and efforts to produce high voter turnout.