Real Meaning of Napolitano Speech: No Amnesty Anytime Soon

By Jon Feere and Jon Feere on November 15, 2009

Despite gloating from the open-border groups about DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano's immigration address at a liberal advocacy group Friday morning, her message was clear: "When Congress is ready to act, we will be ready to support them." In other words, the White House will not advance an amnesty until Congress makes the first move. The underlying message directed at amnesty advocates: Go bug the legislators and leave us alone.

Of course, members of Congress are in no rush to resurrect the amnesty debate during an election year. So where does that leave us?

Amnesty is a year away, and always will be. Napolitano suggested it has the potential to happen in 2010, but the midterm elections are going to make many members of Congress squeamish about pushing legislation opposed by a majority of Americans. After the midterms, Congress might be more willing to take up amnesty in 2011; this would require that the midterms result in no increase in Blue Dog-democrats or enforcement-minded Republicans, of course. But even if the election resulted in a pro-amnesty Congress, the White House would likely do everything it could to postpone the debate until after the presidential election in 2012 for fear of turning off voters. Assuming the best possible scenario for the open-border crowd (e.g. the open-border left gains seats in the House and the Senate; Obama wins reelection; unemployment goes down; etc.), the earliest possible date for an amnesty debate is likely 2013. This shouldn't come as a surprise; Vice President Joe Biden is on record saying the following earlier this year:

"It's difficult to tell a constituency while unemployment is rising, they're losing their jobs and their homes, that what we should do is in fact legalize (illegal immigrants) and stop all deportation."

Since Biden's declaration, the economic climate has only worsened. As Napolitano described it Friday, the nation is facing "an economic and financial crisis as deep and threatening as we’ve seen since the Great Depression." Justifying mass immigration when jobs are scarce is something no rational person can do. An amnesty isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

How much has changed since 2007? Despite the economic concerns, Secretary Napolitano asserted that much has changed since 2007 and that the climate is ripe for an amnesty. The main reason amnesty didn’t happen in 2007, she explained, was because the American public distrusted the federal government to do the right thing and enforce our laws:

"In 2007, many members of Congress said that they could support immigration reform in the future, but only if we first made significant progress securing the border. This reflected the real concern of many Americans that the government was not serious about enforcing the law. Fast-forward to today, and many of the benchmarks these members of Congress set in 2007 have been met. For example, the Border Patrol has increased its forces to more than 20,000 officers, and DHS has built more than 600 miles of border fencing. Both of these milestones demonstrate that we have gotten Congress' message."

The agenda here is to justify amnesty by painting the picture that the federal government has done everything it can to enforce the law. But suggesting that the public is now content with the government's enforcement efforts is nothing more wishful thinking. It has only been 24 months since the last attempt at mass amnesty, and since Napolitano took over as the head of DHS, a number of actions by the Obama Administration have given the public reason to be concerned, including: DHS's effort to undermine secure IDs; DHS's weakening of the 287(g) program by redrafting agreements with law enforcement agencies; the adoption of a "catch and release" approach to 287(g); DHS letting politics override public safety by rescinding 287(g) field authority in one Arizona jurisdiction; Napolitano's formation of a border security task force that is advocating the weakening of enforcement with help from the National Council of La Raza; Napolitano being "not happy" that ICE raided a workplace, even though it was part of a gang investigation; Napolitano inaccurately claiming that the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. through Canada – a sign that she still doesn’t understand the importance of visa issuance; Napolitano showing disinterest in an exit system that allows us to know if and when immigrants leave; Napolitano rejecting the word "terrorism" and substituting "man-caused disasters"; and DHS's report describing those in favor of immigration enforcement as "right-wing extremists."

These are but a few recent examples, but they illustrate why the public remains skeptical of the White House's commitment to immigration enforcement. When coupled with the sour economy, the public is in no rush to support mass legalization of illegal aliens.

The government has a long way to go before the public regains faith in the nation’s leadership on the issue of immigration. There remains much that the government is not doing. The feds could outlaw sanctuary cities; they could mandate E-Verify nationwide; they could do much more to secure our borders and ports of entry; they could set up a fully-functioning Entry-Exit system; and ultimately, they could adopt a policy of attrition through enforcement.

Some good things have happened since the last attempt at amnesty in 2007, however. According to analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies, the moderate increase in enforcement efforts at the end of the Bush Administration was responsible for setting into motion (before the recession started) the drop in the illegal population from a peak of 12.5 million in the summer of 2007 to 10.8 million in the first quarter of 2009. This is a 13.7 percent reduction of approximately 1.7 million. This is the attrition policy at work. It is this type of policy that increases public trust in government officials on the issue of immigration. But this trust – just like the attrition of the illegal alien population through enforcement – is not going to materialize overnight. If the White House were to commit to an attrition policy for the next four to eight years, two things would happen: the illegal alien population would shrink dramatically, and the public would see that the White House is committed to enforcing our laws – both of these are prerequisites for amnesty, and neither has been achieved since 2007. So far, it appears that the Obama Administration has adopted the Mary Poppins strategy where they hope a spoonful of enforcement will help an amnesty go down.

Back to 1986? The United States tried an amnesty in 1986, and it only had the effect of increasing illegal immigration. As Napolitano described it:

"We know that one-sided reform, as we saw in 1986, cannot succeed. During that reform effort, the enforcement part of the equation was promised, but it didn't materialize. That helped lead to our current situation, and it undermined Americans’ confidence in their government's approach to this issue. That mistake can’t happen again, and it won't happen again."

Napolitano is spot on here. The 1986 amnesty was sold to the public as a one-time deal, an amnesty to end all amnesties. The mass legalization happened immediately, with astronomical fraud rates. It also facilitated the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Ultimately, it sent the message around the world that the United States grants citizenship to those who follow the law, and to those who break it. Massive increases in illegal immigration resulted.

That mistake shouldn't be made again. But it's a mistake the White House and some members of Congress seem to want to repeat. In many ways, Napolitano's speech sounded schizophrenic: she described the "comprehensive" amnesty of 1986 as a mistake but she seeks a new "comprehensive" amnesty. Not only that, her proposal sounds quite similar to the 1986 amnesty. It's foolish to expect different results.

Does DHS "need" an amnesty? Napolitano repeatedly stated that DHS needs a "comprehensive" immigration bill in order to "secure the nation" and manage legal immigration. Her argument is that a comprehensive amnesty bill would include new enforcement tools, not just a legalization scheme. She explained:

"For example, we need tougher anti-smuggling laws in dealing with the aggravated crimes smugglers commit—including assaulting law enforcement officers, endangering children, threatening relatives and abandoning people in the desert— hundreds of whom succumb to death from heat and lack of water. We also need to update current laws that don't cover some of the new means by which criminals conduct their business. For instance, today's smugglers and drug traffickers often move cash through 'stored value' cards, which aren't even considered monetary instruments under the current money-smuggling laws.

"In addition, we need improvements to the current law when it comes to interior and worksite enforcement. Dishonest businesses often ignore the civil fines for illegal employment now on the books because they're so low. It's also very difficult to prosecute these crimes as felonies because of the over-elaborate intent requirements built into the current statutes.

"Moreover, some current laws covering immigration-related fraud have to be brought more in line with common sense. Right now, a corrupt immigration attorney who facilitates hundreds of immigration violations by knowingly helping aliens fraudulently seek asylum or permanent residence is treated almost the same as an alien who buys a single fake green card."

All these are perfectly good ideas. The public would support new laws to clamp down on smugglers, law-breaking employers, and corrupt immigration attorneys. But there's no reason why such tools would need to be coupled with an amnesty. If Napolitano was serious about wanting these new tools, she could demand Congress draft legislation specific to these needs immediately. Not only would such a move work to discourage illegal immigration, it would also send a signal to the public that the White House is serious about enforcement.

But at the end of her speech, a reporter asked Napolitano if she would support a stand-alone bill granting her these tools and leave the "controversial" – read, amnesty – provisions to be debated after 2012. Disappointingly, Napolitano answered in the negative illustrating that this supposed "need" for more enforcement tools is not authentic. Apparently, if she cannot get mass legalization, Napolitano is content to allow smugglers to "endangering children" for as long as necessary.

A good start. Despite the numerous concerns, it is worth noting that the attrition policy is slowly becoming standard practice. Piece by piece, the federal government is showing some commitment to this policy, and if things continue as they are, the nation might see a serious reduction in the illegal immigrant population. To this extent, the Congress and the Obama Administration should be applauded for supporting Secure Communities, expanding 287(g) to more jurisdictions, mandating E-Verify for federal contractors, hiring more Border Patrol agents, and for other efforts.

But there is still a long way to go before any discussion of amnesty should take place. Considering the political and economic climates, the White House has plenty of time to improve enforcement efforts and garner trust with the public before any amnesty becomes feasible.

In the meantime, there is no reason the government should not continue to do everything it can to enforce our immigration laws. Napolitano stated numerous times that such enforcement is critical if we are to stop illegal immigration. To that extent, she is right. It's the supposed need for mass amnesty that remains unpersuasive.