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CNN "The Situation Room" - Transcript


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BLITZER: And joining us now, the secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano.

Madame Secretary, thanks for coming in on this busy day. You caught all of us by surprise, especially as we went back and looked at what the president had say.

Back in October of 2010, he said, I am president, I am not king, I can't do these things just by myself. We have a system of government that requires the Congress to work with the executive branch to make it happen. I'm committed to making it happen, but I've got to have some partners to do it. He was referring to comprehensive immigration reform. But now he and you are taking unilateral, executive action to begin this process. Why now?

JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Well, this was a logical progression from series of decisions that we've made over the last several years, to focus immigration enforcement on those who have violated the criminal law in addition to the immigration law, those who are repeat violators, those who are recent border crossers.

We've also been putting unprecedented resources at the border so that illegal immigration attempts at the southwest border haven't been this low since before 1971. But even as we've been enforcing the law, and we have removed a record number of individuals from the country, there is this group, this the group of young people, brought here through no fault of their own, they often haven't been to their country of origin, they don't speak the language. They're in school and they're in the military, they have not been in trouble with the law. We need to, within our discretionary authority, defer action against these individuals. And that's what I'm announcing today.

BLITZER: Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, says the president's decision -- what the president is doing is choosing politics over leadership. Because all of the critics are now insisting this wreaks of politics. Do you want to respond to that?

NAPOLITANO: Well, I would say, no. First of all, this was a decision out of my office, as the secretary of homeland security. And it was a decision made after we looked at what we've been doing over the last three years. And as you know, one of the things we've been doing over the last year is re-examining all 340,000 pending immigration cases and trying to re-stack them in line with our priorities and trying to administratively close cases that are low priority.

But as we've done that, we've now -- we've seen this whole category of young people, and we need to go a step further, and this is the next logical step, and that is to actually defer action.

BLITZER: You're talking about, what, 800,000 potential people who would qualify for this new status?

NAPOLITANO: It's really difficult to stay. There are those who are in removal proceedings now and we will either fine them or we're asking them to help us self-identify. There will be hotlines and websites up over the next couple of days. And then there are those who haven't been in touch with the immigration system, but they've been living under a cloud. And within 60 days, they will be able to go to a CIS office and if they meet the criteria, and they're going to have to demonstrate they meet the criteria, they can be given a grant of deferred action.

BLITZER: What about the parents of these children. Children come forward now, they identify themselves. Should the parents be concerned that potentially they could be deports, they would now be identified as illegal immigrants?

NAPOLITANO: No, we are not going to do that. We have internally set it up so that the parents are not referred for immigration enforcement if the young person comes in for deferred actions. However, the parents are not qualified for deferred action. This is for the young people who meet the criteria that we've set forth.

BLITZER: What social services would these young people be qualified for? Would they be qualified to receive Medicaid benefits, food stamps? School vouchers, stuff like that?

NAPOLITANO: No, no. They won't be -- again, there is deferred action now given in certain cases, and they don't qualify for those types of benefits. The one thing they may qualify for is a work authorization card, if they can demonstrate economic necessity.

BLITZER: Is this a pathway to citizenship for these young people?

NAPOLITANO: Not at all. In fact, that's where Congress needs to act. And we continue to urge the congress, you know, pass the dream act, look at comprehensive immigration reform, the immigration system as a whole.

You know, I've been dealing with immigration enforcement for 20 years, and the plain factor of the matter is that the law that we're working under doesn't match the economic needs of the country today. And the law enforcement needs of the country today.

But as someone who is charged with enforcing the immigration system, we're setting good, strong, sensible priorities, and again, these young people really are not the individuals that the immigration removable process was designed to focus upon.

BLITZER: One quite final question. Is the department of homeland security, I.C.E., immigrations and customs enforcement, are you ready for what's about to happen? Because presume apply you're going to be swapped with phone calls, appearances, these young people that want to get some legal status.

NAPOLITANO: You know, we're cautioning people, we need to take it, you know, kind of incrementally. Instructions have gone out to I.C.E. and C.B.P. today that they are not to put these young people into removal proceedings. We will begin the process over the next weeks of identifying those already in removal or who have received a final order of removal to consider them for deferred action and there will be phone numbers and a public advocate that these individuals can actually call, beginning next week, if they think they qualify.

And then for those who haven't been in the immigration system yet, they haven't been put into any kind of a proceeding, but they want to come forward, that will have to be to a CIS office, and that will be 60 days.

And again, we are posting on initial information, initial frequently asked questions, but we're going to have to work together with the community, with the country, to do a smooth enough implementation as possible.

BLITZER: Janet Napolitano, thanks so much, the secretary of homeland security. Good luck.



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