Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano lobbied for the DREAM Act Thursday saying immigration enforcement will be improved if Congress approves the bill that would legalize hundreds of thousands of undocumented students brought here illegally by their parents when they were children.
In remarks to reporters from around the country during a conference call from Washington, Napolitano said passage of the DREAM Act would enable DHS to focus more aggressively on deporting foreign criminal convicts.
``It's important to point out that the DREAM Act fits into a larger strategy of immigration enforcement, and would actually complement the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to prioritize our enforcement resources on removing dangerous criminal aliens from the country,'' Napolitano said.
Napolitano's statements appeared aimed at convincing reluctant Republican lawmakers to view the DREAM Act as a complement to enforcement, not an ``amnesty'' bill for undocumented immigrants.
In answer to a question from El Nuevo Herald, Napolitano said categorically that her department will not consider a suspension of deportations while Congress debates the bill as has been requested by immigrant rights activists in South Florida and other parts of the country.
``Our job is to enforce the law and we are going to continue to do that,'' Napolitano told El Nuevo Herald.
Passage of the DREAM Act, she added, will allow Homeland Security to devote more resources to the ``criminals-first'' deportation program.
``The DREAM Act would take out of the calculus those young people who really . . . are not responsible, of their own will, for being in the country,'' said Napolitano.
Senate Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have indicated they will bring the DREAM Act to a vote during the lame-duck session, but it's unclear precisely when debate will begin.
To address enforcement concerns of some Republican lawmakers, the DREAM Act bill text in the Senate has been made more restrictive.
Napolitano acknowledged Thursday that her department had played a role in the toughening of the language.
``Some of the changes that have been made and incorporated in the current version of the bill are to, as far as I know, address some of the concerns that were raised, particularly on the Senate side,'' said Napolitano.
José Dante Parra, Reid's spokesman, took aim at Florida Republican Sen. George LeMieux for not embracing the DREAM Act even after prior concerns had been addressed.
``It is unfortunate that Sen. LeMieux continues to move the goalposts on a bill as critical as the DREAM Act,'' Dante Parra said in a statement. ``He has raised concerns throughout the past months on border security and procedure around the DREAM Act, and all of those concerns have been addressed.''
Now, Dante Parra added, Lemieux has signed a letter, released by the Republican leadership, ``vowing to block all legislation in the Senate including DREAM, unless we first give tax cuts to the rich.''
LeMieux told The Miami Herald Tuesday that Republicans would not vote for anything until there is a vote on extending Bush-era tax cuts.
LeMieux issued a statement through a spokesman Thursday explaining why he is not embracing the DREAM Act.
``While I am sympathetic to the students impacted by current law, I cannot support consideration of the DREAM Act until we have taken substantial and effective measures to secure our borders,'' LeMieux said.
LeMieux's Democratic colleague, Sen. Bill Nelson, is a DREAM Act co-sponsor.
In a separate conference call with reporters Thursday, Florida state Rep. Juan Zapata urged LeMieux to change his mind and vote for the DREAM Act.
``I really hope that Sen. LeMieux does the right thing,'' said Zapata. ``I understand his feelings on the issue, but I think this far outweighs any political interests.''