WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday defended the Obama administration's plan to suspend deportation for young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
Napolitano, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, said the policy would help clear out the backlog of non-priority cases so that her department can focus on criminals, recent border crossers and repeat violators.
Republicans on the committee were not swayed, decrying the policy as "blanket amnesty under the guise of deferred action" that could apply to as many as 1 million people. Napolitano said repeatedly that there is no way of knowing how many people could be affected. "The administration's amnesty agenda is a win for illegal immigrants but a loss for Americans," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the committee chairman.
The policy grants "deferred action" on deportation to individuals under 30 who were brought to the United States under age 16, have been here five years, don't have a criminal record, and are in school, have graduated from high school or earned a GED. It would also give them the opportunity to apply for a two-year work visa.
Napolitano announced the policy June 15 and it was quickly endorsed by President Barack Obama.
Democrats on the committee rallied Thursday behind Napolitano, saying the policy gives young people the chance to "achieve the dream" of citizenship while keeping "high-priority removals" at an all-time high.
But Smith and other Republicans worried that by letting illegal immigrants receive temporary work permits, the policy could end up taking jobs away from Americans.
"With 23 million Americans unemployed or underemployed, this amnesty only makes their lives harder," Smith said.
Napolitano said she thought "deeply" about the issue while writing the memorandum laying out the policy.
"This was an issue I thought about deeply because jobs for Americans are very important," she said.
While there was no "real estimate" of the number of people who could be granted work permits, Napolitano said she ultimately came to the conclusion that the American economy should not be balanced on the backs of children who were brought here.
Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Phoenix, expressed concern that the policy could set a precedent for other agencies to disregard laws.
"What can we do as legislators to make sure that the laws that are passed are actually fully enforced by the executive branch?" he asked.
Napolitano insisted the department is enforcing the laws.
"We've removed more people from this country than any prior administration over a similar time period," she said.
The most heated exchange came when Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, questioned whether the new immigration policy violated the Constitution and congressional authority. He threatened to "take this to court" if the policy is not rescinded.
"There is a separation of power," King said. "The executive branch cannot legislate by executive order or memorandum."
Napolitano defended the policy, saying it fits "within our prosecutorial authorities."
"I will not rescind it," she said. "It is right under the law."
Democrats commended the department for "improving border security" after Napolitano said the administration was taking the most "serious and sustained action to secure the Southwest border in American history."
"For the first time ever, persons with criminal convictions made up more than half of those removals," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. "And more than 90 percent met the administration's enforcement priorities, which includes recent border crossers and repeat violators."
Committee Democrats also voiced support for the new immigration policy.
"I also applaud the administration's decision regarding the young people who are here under the ‘DREAM Act' category," said Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C.
He said the policy recognizes the fact that children who "have no connection to the country from which they were born and no responsibility for bringing themselves into this country" do not deserve to be treated like criminals.
Napolitano said more information about the policy will be released Aug. 1 and that individuals who believe they are eligible for deferred action can start applying on Aug. 15.