For months, top Democrats have been threatening House Republicans: if you don’t act on immigration, President Obama will with the “stroke of a pen.”
It’s a threat that House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte doesn’t appreciate, and now the top Obama administration official crafting such a change is taking the hot seat in Goodlatte’s committee.
“When I talk to members of the Judiciary Committee the first thing they bring up is the lack of enforcement of immigration laws and I would say, even greater concern, the de facto rewriting of immigration laws,” Goodlatte said in an exclusive interview previewing the Thursday hearing with Department of Homeland Security Sec. Jeh Johnson.
“And now the president has assigned the cabinet secretary who will be appearing before us tomorrow with the very task of recommending to him what appears to be further decisions to not enforce the immigrations laws,” Goodlatte added.
In March the Obama administration called on Johnson to conduct a review of deportation policies. Critics are expecting a major erosion of immigration enforcement. The announcement of the new policy was abruptly delayed Tuesday, with White House officials explaining that President Obama wanted to give House Republicans time to pass their own immigration bills.
Goodlatte said that’s not how it works.
“We shouldn’t allow them to use the threat of writing [immigration laws] to cause the House to act in a fashion other than doing the right thing and doing immigration reform the right way,” the Virginia Republican said.
“So to me this whole discussion and this suggestion on the part of the president that there’s a two to three month window to do something — if he’s talking about the political process and how right before an election major laws don’t general pass, fine, but there are also opportunities to act after an election and in a new Congress,” Goodlatte continued. “If he’s talking on the other hand, ‘there is a two to three month window before I act unilaterally’ that I think is going to cause a great uproar and the American people are going to reject that. They do not want their president writing their immigration laws.”
Based on the verbiage in a Politico article quoting White House aides who leaked the delay, Goodlatte added, it sounds as if the policy review is basically complete. He added that the delayed release suggests that the review will lead to even less immigration enforcement.
Goodlatte is one of the most interesting figures in the immigration debate, because he’s viewed with suspicion by both liberal Democrats pressing for amnesty and top immigration hawks trying to kill it.
“Goodlatte is not working to achieve immigration reform. He is working to scuttle it,” a Democrat involved in immigration negotiations told The Hill in November.
But Goodlatte caught flak from the right when he told Telemundo in January that legal status could be part of a House-passed immigration package. “I see no reason why we can’t also have an agreement that shows how people who are not lawfully here can be able to be lawfully here – able to live here, work here, travel to and from their home country, be able to own a business, pay their taxes,” he said then.
To hear Goodlatte talk, he’s on board with the idea of reforming the nation’s immigration laws, but deeply concerned with avoiding another debacle like the 1986 amnesty that only resulted in millions of additional illegal aliens crossing the border.
“Congress should do immigration reform, but we should make sure we get is right. And getting it right is far more important than meeting any time table,” he told me.
Johnson’s prepared testimony, says the deportation review is “ongoing” and encourages Congress to pass immigration reform because “whatever we do to revise our enforcement policies…is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform passed by Congress.”
“The estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants living in this country are not going away,” his testimony continues. “They are not going to ‘self-deport.’ As a matter of homeland security, we should encourage these people to come out of the shadows of American society, pay taxes and fines, be held accountable, and be given the opportunity to get on a path to citizenship like others.
“What we are talking about is not amnesty, or rewarding people for breaking the law; it is an opportunity to actually get right with the law and get in line behind others. It is far preferable to what we have now,” the testimony says.
Besides Obama’s penchant for stretching the law, Johnson will also face tough questions about the recent revelation that last year ICE released more than 36,000 criminal immigrants, convicted of nearly 88,000 crimes while awaiting the outcome of deportation proceedings.
“We’re particularly concerned that the administration keeps on claiming that they are enforcing our immigration laws, that deportations are the highest levels ever, but when you scratch the surface of that you find a number of deportations are simply people who are apprehended at the border and — in the past were simply turned away without being put through the deportation process — now they are being put through deportation and sent out,” Goodlatte said.
“That constitutes about two-thirds of all the deportations that the administration claims,” he continued, “Of the remainder, the largest percentage, perhaps over 80 percent, are criminal aliens. And then we find that even in this category we have huge numbers of criminal aliens, many convicted of serious crimes being put right back out on the street.”
According to the chairman, the criminal alien releases will be a “definite focus” during the hearing, as the Obama administration has been less than eager to answer questions about it — part of an overall lack of transparency particularly when it comes to enforcement immigration laws.
“So this will be an opportunity for the secretary to come clean on whether or not these matters are being addressed,” Goodlatte said, adding that Johnson should experience “some rather tough cross-examination.”
According to his prepared testimony, Johnson is aware of the release of thousands of criminal immigrants but still seeking more information about the issue.
“I am aware of the reports that in Fiscal Year 2013 thousands of individuals with criminal convictions who may be removable were released from custody. I have asked for a deeper understanding of this issue,” Johnson’s testimony reads. “Many of these releases were directed by immigration judges or pursuant to legal requirements, and/or with conditions of supervision intended to ensure their monitoring and appearance. Nevertheless, I intend to work with ICE leadership to determine whether we are doing everything we can to maximize public safety.”
When asked if there is anything Johnson can say tomorrow to help alleviate his and other members’ concerns about lack of immigration enforcement, Goodlatte said, “I don’t want to put any words in his mouth so let’s wait and see but we have lots of questions.”