Budgeting Immigration: Narrow Focus for Napolitano on the Hill

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano spent the past two days testifying in front of congressional committees addressing concerns over President Obama’s fiscal year (FY) 2011 DHS budget. Mixed in amongst complaints over proposed cuts in cyber security and the Coast Guard were a number of budget decisions with immigration implications. Chief amongst those were a cut in border patrol agents, the status of the troubled SBInet program, and worksite enforcement efforts, including the oft-maligned E-Verify program.

Secretary Napolitano confirmed during testimony that DHS would be completing the “first phase” of SBInet, but stopping after that and reevaluating the program and technology. She stressed that the long-delayed technology was tough to implement because it was in some of the roughest environmental areas and this delayed construction. Congressional opinions were mixed, with Senators Carper (D-DE) and McCain (R-AZ) calling the program a waste of time and money. House Republicans disagreed, as Representatives Rogers (R-MI), Souder (R-IN), and Miller (R-MI) were quick to extol the virtues of SBInet and plead for more funding. All of this follows a September 2009 report from the Government Accounting Office which implored Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to analyze whether or not the time and money spent on SBInet was a good investment considering its limited effectiveness.

Napolitano held the company line for DHS on other issues, stressing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was focused on detention of “criminal” aliens, despite complaints from Rep. Rogers about the drop in non-criminal arrests of unauthorized immigrants. Napolitano also echoed ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton’s commitment to Secure Communities, a program which is designed to identify and remove “criminal” aliens from the U.S. Napolitano also confirmed that ICE was working to reform medical care for ICE detainees, but was unwilling to give a timeline for that effort

Others in Congress voiced their displeasure on worksite enforcement on the heels of Thursday's article in the Wall Street Journal. Napolitano stressed that I-9 audits were up over the last year, and that E-Verify covered more employers than ever before. However, Napolitano was unable to provide an explanation as to E-Verify’s staggering error rate.

Finally, on a less policy-specific note, Senator McCain showed signs of life on immigration reform. After rightly deriding border fence efforts, he noted that border apprehensions had declined and asked Napolitano rhetorically what was going to happen when the economy recovered. The implication here is that the apprehensions have gone down not because of failed enforcement efforts, but because of the economy. This apparent understanding will help in enacting smart comprehensive immigration reform, as immigration enforcement without comprehensive reform does not work.

With all of the time spent discussing immigration enforcement, comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) advocates may be disappointed that only one representative (Roybal-Allard of California) even mentioned CIR. Understandably, the focus of DHS is homeland security, but identifying the 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the U.S. would seem to be a boon to our nation’s security.


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