Napolitano on Immigration:‘ I Took an Oath to Enforce the Law’

She was just doing her job — that’s how former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano explained the nearly 2 million deportations under her watch when speaking to Jorge Ramos on Thursday night.

“That’s the law, and I took an oath to enforce the law,” she said. “And we did it in a way, and did the most we could, to enforce the law, while trying to reform it at the same time.”

Ramos pointed out to Napolitano that those deportations have had an impact on families.

“Any immigration enforcement, sadly and unfortunately, will split up families,” she said. “It will do that even when we hopefully get comprehensive immigration reform.”

During the interview, Ramos asked Napolitano about the sizable number of non-criminal deportations during her time at DHS.

Napolitano responded that the administration was deporting fewer non-criminals.

“It’s hard to change the steering of these large ships overnight,” she said. “I think the bigger question, however, right now, is when will Congress reform the underlying law.”

Even though Napolitano left the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in September, she hasn’t escaped criticism from immigrant rights supporters who blame her for separating immigrant families unnecessarily.

She’s now the president of the University of California system, where a small but vocal group of students have been fighting back against her appointment.

Immigration became a signature issue for Napolitano during her nearly five-year tenure at DHS, even overshadowing areas like terrorism and disaster prevention.

The former Arizona governor — no stranger to immigration politics — took a centrist approach to her role that didn’t win many fans on either side of the debate.

Deportations rose to historic highs under her watch, with DHS logging an average of 400,000 removals per year. And the number of agents guarding the border continued a steady staffing climb that began in the early 1990s.

On the other hand, she revolutionized the way the agency pursued its deportation cases.

In 2011, the department told immigration agents that they would need to be more judicious in how they pursued immigration cases, prioritizing criminal immigrants over non-criminals.

Napolitano also oversaw the implementation of a landmark deportation relief program for young undocumented immigrants. As of July 2013, more than 430,000 young people had received temporary permission to live and work in the U.S. through the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Napolitano told Ramos that she’s “not an immigration enforcer” in her new position at the helm of the University of California system. So far, her early actions as the UC president suggest she wants to be remembered as a champion of immigrants, and not the chief executive of a deportation machine.

In late October, she announced that UC would earmark $5 million per year for counseling and financial aid for undocumented immigrant students.

Ramos prodded her on any ideological conflict between her past role at DHS and her current job.

“Many protesters, they think it’s hypocritical that now you are trying to help some students and just a few months ago, you were deporting exactly the same kind of people that right now you are supposed to help,” he said.

“Well, I think if you look at the overall track record, that’s inaccurate,” Napolitano responded. “But let me put it this way: would you rather I not try to help undocumented students?”

She continued:

“Again, I took an oath to enforce the law, I did it in the best way I could. That was the job I undertook. I also took an oath to help people become citizens, which I also did.”


Here’s where you can catch us on TV:

Want to know what’s on right now? Head over to our show lineup page.