In an interview with All Things Considered's Audie Cornish, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the administration's decision to defer the deportation of some young illegal immigrants is a part of a "strong enforcement" of immigration laws.
She said that this administration has stymied illegal border crossings and stepped up deportations of criminals.
"Strong enforcement also embodies looking at different categories differently when the facts justify that we do so," Napolitano said.
"These individuals really fall in a separate category and we ought to address it as such," she added.
Like she did earlier today, Napolitano characterized this move as prioritizing.
"What we're doing is saying, 'Look when we enforce the immigration law, we want to focus on those who have violated the criminal laws in addition to immigration law, who are repeat violators or are people we catch right at the border," she said.
Audie asked Napolitano to respond to critics who have said with this policy shift, the Obama administration is essentially bypassing Congress.
Napolitano said this doesn't take the place of legislation.
"This is not the same as the Dream Act, because there is no pathway to citizenship.There's no pathway to permanent legal residency. It's deferral of removal action," she said.
And it's something the U.S. has done before, she said. For example, the Obama administration decided to defer the removal of the undocumented widows of service members.
We'll post the as-aired version of the interview a little later tonight.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
I'm Audie Cornish, and we begin this hour with a controversial policy shift from the White House. President Obama announced today that the U.S. will stop deporting young, illegal immigrants who have stayed in school and out of trouble.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.
BLOCK: The policy will apply to people who are aged 30 or younger who arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16 and have lived here for at least five years.
CORNISH: They must also have graduated from high school, currently be in school or have served in the military. Republicans criticize the move and said it was an effort to revive parts of the president's DREAM Act after it had stalled in Congress.
BLOCK: But the president told reporters in the White House Rose Garden this afternoon that this policy, unlike the DREAM Act, does not offer a path to citizenship. He added that the new policy offers neither amnesty nor immunity. Mitt Romney weighed in with some nuanced criticism. He agreed that the status of young people here illegally is an important matter, but one that should be solved on a long-term basis.
MITT ROMNEY: I think the action that the president took today makes it more difficult to reach that long-term solution because an executive order is, of course, just a short-term matter.
CORNISH: We begin our coverage with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. When I spoke with her today, she rejected the criticism that this is a kind of backdoor amnesty.
SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: This is an exercise of prosecutorial discretion within the framework of the existing law. What we're doing is saying, look, when we enforce the immigration laws, we want to focus on those who have violated the criminal laws in addition to the immigration laws, who are repeat violators or who are people we catch right at the border. And at the same time as we have, you know, put those high priority cases into one bucket, into the other bucket we're putting those group of young people who, through no fault of their own, generally they were brought here by parents or other older relatives. They basically grew up here. They've never been to their country of origin. They don't even speak the language. They're going to school. They're in the military. They haven't had run-ins with the law. For those individuals, we are not going to seek removal.
CORNISH: But we're also talking about roughly 800,000 people. And what about the critic who essentially say that you're encouraging illegal immigration in the future when you provide actions like this?
NAPOLITANO: To the contrary, that's why we put requirements on that you have to have been in this country as of today, and you had to have been here at least five years. And that's to cut against the notion that this is somehow going to be a magnet. But look, our immigration system needs reform, and we continue to want that, and the DREAM Act is part of that reform. We continue to want that. In the meantime, however, the framework allows for discretion, for setting priorities. And just as we set high priorities, we're entitled to set low priorities, which we've done here.
CORNISH: But is this essentially then an administrative DREAM Act, and as some lawmakers are saying, an end-run around Congress, which has been dealing with this legislation for many years?
NAPOLITANO: Well, first of all, it's not the same as the DREAM Act because there is no pathway to citizenship. There's no pathway to permanent legal residency. It's a deferral of removal action. It's a possibility for work authorization.
CORNISH: So do you disagree that this an end-run around them?
NAPOLITANO: No. We exercise discretion in other areas as well. For example, last year, we did something very similar with respect to widows or widowers of those who had married U.S. citizens and the U.S. citizens who were in the military and died within several years of the marriage. And we went ahead and delayed removal on those individuals. There are lots of circumstances and equities in law enforcement that must be taken into account.
CORNISH: What happens to the parents of these young people? Will they be deported? Does this affect their action?
NAPOLITANO: No. They do not qualify for deferred departure, but we will not be sending the names of parents over for enforcement just because a young person came forward.
CORNISH: How wise is the timing of this given that any day now the Supreme Court could hand down a ruling that could reshape our thinking about the enforcement of immigration law?
NAPOLITANO: Well, everybody can always argue about timing, but the key part of the timing here was that we've been spending the last year basically reviewing the 350,000 some odd cases that are already pending in the immigration courts and trying to restack them in accord with our priorities. And in doing so, we found that we were already offering administrative closure to these kinds of cases, young people brought in to the country and so forth. And the next logical step was to say, all right, for this category, we're going to go ahead and defer action for two years. So.
CORNISH: And lastly, the election year timing of this. I mean, given that this is essentially, as the president calls it, a stopgap program, a temporary program, and that one that could very much be in jeopardy if a new administration comes into office.
NAPOLITANO: Well, again, given that we've been going in a very orderly fashion over the last several years, really looking at the cases that we have, really focusing our priorities, that's what we're going to continue to do. And we don't stop those efforts just because it's an election year.
CORNISH: Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, thank you so much for talking with us.
NAPOLITANO: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.