By Dustin Volz
Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – Lawmakers pressed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about border security and deportation policies in two House hearings that lasted much of the day Wednesday.
Napolitano’s appearance before a House Appropriations subcommittee in the morning and the House Homeland Security Committee in the afternoon was supposed to be about her department’s proposed $39.5 billion budget for fiscal 2013, a half-percent reduction from its current budget.
Another $5.5 billion would be available for disaster relief under the 2013 budget plan.
“Over the past several years, DHS has deployed unprecedented levels of personnel, technology and resources to the Southwest border,” Napolitano said in remarks prepared for both hearings. “DHS is also focused on smart and effective enforcement of U.S. immigration laws while streamlining and facilitating the legal immigration process.”
But while Napolitano outlined five budget priorities for next year, two department missions – border security and immigration-law enforcement – commanded much of the morning hearing.
Republicans accused Napolitano of using “prosecutorial discretion” in deciding which detained immigrants to deport, in effect supporting amnesty and DREAM Act policies that Congress has refused to pass.
“Some people say you’ve given those people amnesty,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., of the backlog of non-criminal immigrants in detention. “That they no longer need to worry about being here illegally.”
Napolitano shot back, saying the term amnesty “is way too overused with respect to immigration.” She cited fiscal 2011 numbers that show her department deported about 400,000 illegal immigrants that year, a substantial increase over previous years.
About 55 percent of those deportees had criminal convictions, Napolitano said, and most others were “high-priority” suspects, including fugitives from warrants, recent border crossers or repeat violators.
“One of the things we must do in DHS is prioritize the mission,” Napolitano said. “We’re going to focus on those (illegal immigrants) who have committed serious crimes.”
When pushed by Rogers on whether any immigrants were deported for “just simply being here illegally,” Napolitano said the remaining 10 percent who were not high-priority cases could have been deported for “any number of reasons.”
But Republicans remained skeptical that Napolitano – and the Obama administration – are committed to combating illegal immigration from top to bottom.
“What this results in, I think, is an issue of prosecutorial discretion,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas. “This slowdown in dealing with these people … that seems to be making a choice between what laws you’re going to enforce and what you’re not.”
Some Democrats were quick to defend Napolitano’s handling of border security.
“Anybody who wants to object to your priorities, I think, has a certain burden of proof to name their priorities as opposed to implying you deport 11 million people indiscriminately,” Rep. David Price, D-N.C., told Napolitano.
At times, both Republicans and Democrats commended Napolitano for successes the department has had in capturing border crossers and slowing the overall flow of illegal immigrants into the country, citing efforts in Arizona specifically. But they stressed that border security needs to continue as a high priority for the agency.
“Things are going really well in Arizona, but as you know it’s kind of like that Whac-A-Mole or whatever,” said Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla. “You hit one in Arizona and then it pops up down in the Texas border.”
Napolitano said funding from Congress has helped her department curb illegal immigration.
“We need to sustain the record number of border patrol agents that we have,” she said. “That allows us to secure the border. It gives us some flexibility to move people around without sacrificing yet another sector of the border.”
The afternoon hearing included a wider range of questions and included Napolitano saying she is concerned about threats from Hezbollah and Iran.
It also included attempts by several lawmakers to ask about Operation Fast and Furious, the botched gun-trafficking investigation based in Phoenix, but Napolitano brushed them aside.
“I didn’t know this was a Fast and Furious hearing,” she said twice in response to questions from Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa.