WASHINGTON — Now in her third year as the secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano has experience battling simultaneous criticism that the Obama administration deports both too many and too few undocumented immigrants.
On Tuesday, as she fielded questions from journalists at a Washington breakfast, the secretary repeatedly cited a deportation ratio that her department likes to highlight.
"Almost half of the 400,000 people we deported last year had a criminal record of some sort," Napolitano said. "That's a fairly robust stat."
But while that ratio has risen in recent years, to immigrant advocates it's misleading, and to enforcement advocates it's irrelevant.
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On Tuesday, Napolitano rebutted public criticism of a flagship Department of Homeland Security program, Secure Communities, which matches fingerprints taken at local police stations to a national immigration violators' database. While opponents of the program say agents use it to put nonviolent and even noncriminal immigrants on track for deportation, Napolitano said it helped agents target dangerous criminals.
She emphasized the ratio of criminal to noncriminal deportations.
"The fact that we're at 50-50 (criminal deportees to noncriminal deportees) is already a major change from a few years ago," Napolitano said. "I expect that that ratio of 'crim' to 'non-crim' will increase the more we have Secure Communities."
But critics from both sides place little weight on the ratio.
John Vinson, the president of the American Immigration Control Foundation, which supports tough enforcement, said undocumented immigrants hurt the country in ways that extended beyond crime.
"Even if they aren't committing violent crimes, they're still using American resources," he said, mentioning health care and education costs. "They're still taking jobs Americans need."
Melissa Keaney, a lawyer with the National Immigration Law Center, which is sympathetic to immigrants, saw the issue quite differently. Even people "lumped into this category of 'criminal alien' " few pose risks to public safety, she said. Most who've been convicted were charged with only minor crimes, such as traffic offenses, she said.
"We're tearing apart families and deporting parents who are just trying to make better lives for their families," she said. "It's not what I think the United States stands for or what I think we should be using our resources to do."
Despite similar criticism from immigrant groups, the Obama administration continues to deport more immigrants than any of its predecessors did.
In fiscal 2008, the last one under President George W. Bush, federal agents deported 369,221 undocumented immigrants, of whom 254,806 had no criminal convictions and 114,415 did.
In fiscal 2010, which ended last Sept. 30, officials deported 392,862 immigrants, comprising 197,090 who had no convictions and 195,772 who did.
Those statistics from Immigration and Customs Enforcement comprise both forced removals and voluntary returns, in which immigrants waive their right to formal deportation hearings.
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