Senate turns attention to ‘back-door amnesty’

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Homeland security Secretary Janet Napolitano is in the Senate spotlight today, following revelations yesterday that her deputies in Texas hid their efforts to release hundreds of illegal immigrants facing deportation.

Napolitano is one of three high-profile administration witnesses at a Senate hearing today, which comes one day after the Houston Chronicle published emails among senior officials at Napolitano’s Department of Homeland Security.

The batch of emails showed DHS officials selectively moving against illegal immigrants according to their enforcement priorities, voluntarily dismissing hundreds of deportation cases against illegals who had lived in the state for several years or who had very few crimes on their record. The rules were quietly dropped last August once their existence was reported by Texas media.

“After [a] failed attempt at stonewalling and obstruction of the public’s right to know, the truth is now coming out,” said Jessica Sandlin, press secretary for GOP Texas Sen. John Cornyn. “It now appears that DHS attempted to mislead the public and Congress on its policy of directing dismissals of cases against criminal aliens… Texans can be assured we will get to the bottom of this and make sure the law is enforced and the public safety secured.”

The emails were published Monday several days after DHS officials officials released new rules to curb enforcement of deportation cases. The rules provide several new reasons for officials to not deport illegal immigrants despite their violations of immigration laws — and despite the high unemployment rate among working-class Americans, including Hispanics and African-Americans.

Illegals need not be deported, according to the new DHS rules, if they are enrolled in a taxpayer-funded or private education center, or have family members in the US military.

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Critics of the new rules include the Center for Immigration Studies and the union of border-enforcement officers in the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The rules, they say, are intended to reduce deportation of illegal immigrants and boost support in the Hispanic community for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.

Agents say the policy is a “law enforcement nightmare” developed by the administration to win votes at the expense of law enforcement, according to a June 3 statement by the ICE union. “The desires of foreign nationals illegally in the United States were the framework from which these policies were developed… the result is a means for every person here illegally to avoid arrest or detention, as officers we will never know who we can or cannot arrest,” said a statement Chris Crane, President of the National ICE Council which represents approximately 7,000 ICE agents, officers and employees.

Today’s hearing, which was called by the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic majority, will focus on the DREAM Act, which would grant conditional amnesty to hundreds of thousands of younger illegal immigrants enrolled in schools or in the military. The new DHS rules, say critics, are a back-door attempt to establish the DREAM Act via regulation, following its repeated failure to win approval in Congress.

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Political practicalities, however, will force Cornyn and other Republicans to be cautious and diplomatic when questioning Napolitano. The growing Hispanic minority in Texas may see criticism of illegal immigration as a hostility against Latinos generally. Cornyn, like many other GOP officials, is trying to build political ties to Hispanics, especially middle-class families and business owners.

These efforts have paid off, because GOP candidates in Texas can win in Hispanic-majority districts and can pull in more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. They’re facing an uphill task, said Wes Anderson, a partner at the Maryland-based polling firm, OnMessage, because many Hispanics with ties to Mexico favor large-scale government spending programs. In 2010, he worked with two GOP House candidates win in heavily Hispanic districts.

Witnesses today include Napolitano, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Clifford Stanley, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, will likely provide some criticism of the administration’s new rules.