Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told an overflow crowd Thursday at the Sanford School of Public Policy that the country's immigration law is badly in need of reform to deal with the 10 million illegal immigrants now in the country.
Nevertheless, absent needed reforms, she said her responsibility is to enforce the rule of law.
Napolitano's department deports more than 400,000 illegal immigrants a year and prioritizes those who have committed crimes, who are on terrorism watch lists or who are repeat violators. "I have never seen the borders more secure," because of increased manpower and enforcement on the borders with Mexico and Canada, she said.
"I am a strong believer in the Dream Act," proposed legislation which would provide a quicker path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children, she added. The Dream Act has failed to pass in Congress.
Napolitano gave the Sanford Distinguished Lecture to a crowd of more than 400 people in the Sanford School's Fleishman Commons. She was introduced to the audience by U.S. Rep. David Price, who called her a "leader who has mastered the art of translation of policy into action."
In a conversation with Sanford faculty members David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, and Noah Pickus, director of the Kenan Institute of Ethics, Napolitano discussed the challenges in leading the third largest department in the federal government whose responsibilities include terrorism prevention, border security, cybersecurity, immigration, and disaster preparedness and response.
The department operates in an "evolving threat environment" and seeks to "maximize our ability to minimize risk," she said. The paradigm for terrorism has changed, from a complex conspiracy created abroad and coming here, to a growing threat from homegrown, "lone wolf" actors. She pointed to the Fort Hood shooting and the bomb planted along a parade route in Spokane, Wash., as examples of domestic terrorism.
"Homeland security is really hometown security," and is a shared responsibility, she said.
Asked by Schanzer about the balance between freedom and security, especially for groups that may feel subjected to unwarranted surveillance, Napolitano mentioned meetings with Muslim leaders to encourage connections with local law enforcement and with federal offices that advise her directly on the issues.
"You have to accept that you can never eliminate every threat," she said when asked how much security is enough. Aviation continues to be a focus because "there is constant intel about taking out aircraft." The department is making changes to procedures, such as using more random checks at airports and allowing small children to keep their shoes on.
During a question-and-answer session, an audience member identified herself as "an undocumented dreamer," while her companion asked if President Obama would enact Dream Act provisions via executive order.
"The president will not do it through executive fiat. Only Congress can address this," Napolitano said, but she stressed the importance of Obama's support for the reform, which until recently had bipartisan support.
Another audience member, Griselda de los Santos, asked through an interpreter could be done to help her brother, Javier de los Santos. Despite not being among those DHS claims to target for deportation, he has been detained since Sept. 6 after a traffic stop. His wife and three children living in North Carolina consequently have no income.
Napolitano accepted petitions signed on de los Santos’ behalf and said her department is working to "get more guidance in the field about the proper use of discretion" in detaining residents for possible deportation.
Napolitano ended her remarks with an appeal to students to consider a career in public service. "It's challenging intellectually and to your stamina, but it's in service to something bigger than yourself," she said.
The Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture was endowed by a gift to the university from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust in honor of the late Terry Sanford, who served as North Carolina governor, U.S. senator and as Duke president for 16 years. This event was co-sponsored by the Triangle Center for Terrorism and Homeland Security and Duke's Program on American Grand Strategy.