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DHS Secretary Johnson Congressional Testimony: Update on Executive Actions for Immigration Accountability

Immigration ReformIn November 2014, President Obama announced ten executive actions on “immigration accountability.” While two of them are the subject of litigation, the other eight of them are well underway. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testified before the House Judiciary Committee on July 14 about the status of the executive actions.

Relevant portions of his testimony follow:

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Overall, these actions are devoted to strengthening border security, prioritizing the deportation of dangerous criminals, promoting and increasing access to citizenship, supporting high-skilled businesses and workers, and a number of other things to reform our immigration system.

As part of our executive actions we are also promoting and increasing access to U.S. citizenship. We are working to permit payment of the application fee by credit card. We will also launch a multi-lingual citizenship awareness program, to encourage those who are eligible for citizenship to apply. The first phase is moving forward in July and the second phase will launch in September. The President’s Task Force on New Americans, which USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez co-chairs, is hard at work implementing its strategic action plan.

As part of our executive actions, we are working quickly and aggressively to implement reforms to strengthen the program that provides Optional Practical Training for students in the STEM fields who are studying at U.S. universities. We finalized and have begun implementing a new policy that allows certain spouses of high-skilled workers on the path to a green card to apply for work authorization.

As part of our executive actions, we have published draft guidance on the L-1B program that allows specialized foreign employees to work temporarily at an American office of a multinational company. This guidance will be implemented in August.

We are creating a single career path for our immigration enforcement personnel.

As part of our executive actions we have issued new enforcement priorities. This is clearer and sharper guidance to the field, stating that we must prioritize the use of our immigration enforcement resources on the removal of those who are dangerous criminals, national security threats, and recent border crossings, rather than on those who have been here for years, have committed no serious crimes, and have, in effect, become integrated members of our society.

Consistent with these new priorities, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun a new push in the interior of this country to search for and apprehended undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes, through “Operation Cross Check” and other initiatives. Currently, 96% of all those detained by ICE and the Border Patrol fit within the top two out of the three enforcement priorities; 76% of those currently detained by ICE and the Border Patrol are in the top priority – convicted felons, those convicted of an offense that involves participation in a criminal street gang, those apprehended at the border while attempting to cross illegally, and anyone suspected of terrorism or espionage, or who otherwise poses a danger to national security.

We have ended the controversial Secure Communities program, and are replacing it with a new Priority Enforcement Program. Secure Communities was a program by which our immigration personnel lodged orders known as “detainers” to hold individuals in local jails, so that they could be handed directly over to federal authorities for immigration enforcement purposes after their time in police custody. But, Secure Communities became embroiled in political and legal controversy. A rapidly expanding list of city, county and state governments – depending on how you count, about 200 — enacted laws, ordinances, executive orders and policies that limit or outright prohibit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement personnel. The results of this have, regrettably, led to a number of instances – some notorious on national level — in which dangerous undocumented criminals were released to the streets to commit further crime.

We acted to stop this program, and the growing resistance to it. Our new Priority Enforcement Program is a balanced, common-sense approach to help us achieve this goal. We are now reaching out to governors, mayors and local communities to seek cooperation with us in the new program. In engaging a number of state and local jurisdictions, we are seeing good progress. Our overarching goal is to enforce our immigration laws in a way that promotes public safety, national security and border security.

Finally, we must reckon with the estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants who are here in this country. More than half have been here over 10 years. Many have spouses and/or children who are United States citizens or legal permanent residents. We must reckon with these people.

These people are here, they live among us, and they are not going away. They are not going to “self-deport.” No administration is going to deport this large a population of people. We simply do not have the resources to do that.

In 2012, we created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. As part of this program, to date, 670,000 people have come forward, submitted to a background check, and got on the books to become accountable and pay taxes. This is not citizenship, it’s not lawful permanent residence, and it is not amnesty. It is simply a determination by the government to defer deportation for a period of two years, and an authorization to work during that same period.

President Obama and I want to go further, and extend eligibility for deferred action to parents who are not removal priorities, have kids who are citizens or lawful permanent residents, and have been here five years or more.

Although these programs have been temporarily enjoined and are currently on appeal, we continue to believe we have the legal authority to do this. This was one of the executive actions we announced in November. A federal district court in Texas disagreed, and temporarily enjoined this new deferred action program, along with an expansion of the deferred action for childhood arrivals program we announced at the same time. That case is on appeal, and we will continue to fight to defend it. I believe we will prevail, as deferred action is a tool that has been in use by Republican and Democratic Administrations for decades.

To those in Congress who say we do not have the authority to issue deferred action without a change in law, I say change the law.

From the perspective of homeland security and law enforcement, we should encourage people who have lived here for years, and are not going anywhere, to come out of the shadows and get on the books. We want to know who these people are, and we want to encourage them to report crime. We want these people to work on, not off, the books, and pay taxes.

I submit it’s also the right thing to do. In the United States, do we say to a class of people who have lived here for years and are not going away: we know you are here, your family is here, but you are destined to live in this country as a second-class person? Or do we give them an opportunity to earn a better place?

Moving forward, I remain firmly committed to enforcing our immigration laws effectively and sensibly, in line with our Nation’s values, and in a manner that promotes national security, border security and public safety.

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