One of the most tightly rationed governmental resources is the allocation of a few minutes for a legislator to question a member of the president's Cabinet.
Both the frequent waste of this time and its expenditure on specific public policy issues were illustrated in Wednesday's appearance of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano before the Senate's Judiciary Committee. Each senator had a single, seven-minute turn at questioning her. (See the hearing notice and screening of the session.)
There were a number of immigration policy and administration questions, but most of the time was either wasted or spent on other issues, as the Department of Homeland Security has numerous other responsibilities.
As to the waste of time, virtually every senator made somewhat similar comments about the Secret Service and the Colombian prostitute scandals. All spoke highly of the Secret Service staff in general and most worried about the possibility of a compromise of presidential security as a result of contacts with local prostitutes. All of the Democrats spent time complimenting the secretary on her job record and noting the wide array of her department's responsibilities. There was also a little bipartisan time wasted on Sen. Jon Kyl's (R-Ariz.) birthday.
Some of the immigration dialogue related to highly localized activities, such as the comments of the chair, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), on the hardworking USCIS staffers at the Vermont Regional Center; Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) plea for a new building for Border Patrol agents in western New York; and Sen. Kyl's pitch for more inspectors at the San Luis, Ariz., border crossing.
In between these activities, discussions of TSA's inspection of airline passenger footwear, and pending cyber-security legislation there was some time for immigration matters, much of it predictable and some of it not.
In the latter category was a question from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). He said that the FBI was expecting somewhere between 120,000 and 240,000 samples of DNA taken from immigration detainees (presumably in a year) and had received only 4,000 or so. The secretary said that she would get to the bottom of that and let him know what she found. So ... is DHS not collecting these samples, which the senator and the secretary agreed constituted a very useful law enforcement tool?
Two other new, or newish, issues were raised by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). He had visited a DHS detention center and said that the inmates, unlike those in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities, were denied access to the internet had to pay as much as $1 or $2 a minute to use (apparently) land-line telephones. He said that the prisons got large commissions from the local phone companies when the phones were used.
Durbin also asked the secretary about how prosecutorial discretion had eliminated deportation for some aliens who were thus free to stay in the United States, but not free to work. The secretary responded (ominously, I feel) that she would look into the matter. Apparently, were the regulations to be changed, many of these half-amnestied illegal aliens could secure Employment Authorization Documents (EADs), allowing them to work legally.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) pointed out that Secure Communities funding for Cook County, Ill., continues despite the fact that it has refused to let ICE pick up illegal aliens from its jails for deportation — funding that some counties in his state want but have been denied. He essentially asked if it was because his state had passed legislation that the feds do not like. While the secretary agreed that the Cook County posture was "unwise", she did not offer much of a substantive reply.
By the way, no one mentioned the name of Washington's most prominent Cook County voter.
Of the more predictable questions or comments, there were two pleas from the West (Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kyle) to make it easier for growers to get nonimmigrant workers for the harvests. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked for DHS recognition of same-sex marriages for immigration purposes, and Sen. Leahy supported larger numbers of U visas for aliens who are victims of family violence.
Both Senators Feinstein and Sessions, the latter more sharply, asked about the slow progress of DHS in connection with the long-delayed exit control system designed to identify visa abusers. Similar systems, as the senators did not say, have been in place for decades in major nations like the United Kingdom and Australia and even in some little ones such as Fiji.