The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Event report: Janet Napolitano Speech on Immigration at American University

8 October 2011

Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, addressed an audience at American University on October 5. Sher opened the speech by stating that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants and laws. Indeed the very founding of the nation is rooted in immigrants. Immigrant experience is a central part of U.S. culture. However, the reaction to subsequent groups of immigrants has given rise to aspects of our history that we are not proud of.

Napolitano said that lessons from history must be a guide for how we approach immigration issues today. We currently have an outdated patchwork of different immigration-related laws. Knowing this, President Obama, reiterated to her when they took their oath of office to uphold the laws of the country, that it must be done in a smart way and that immigration reform would be part of this commitment. For political reasons, this hasn’t happened in the past and so states have stepped in to attempt to solve the problem themselves.

She said that the administration’s policies on immigration have been described in contradictory terms both as an attempt to deport a record number of immigrants and as an attempt to create amnesty. Communication needs to be improved in order to overcome this contradictory perception because, she claimed, the administration's successes have been very clear: border security is more high-tech and effective than it has ever been before, and numbers of undocumented immigrants that have been deported are at record highs. Approximately 50% of the deportations are of undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of a criminal offence. Investigations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are now carried out in a much more targeted way at individuals who pose a public security threat. What Secretary Napolitano didn't mention, however, is that other surveys such as those by the Immigration Policy Center find that claims of better targeting of immigrants that pose a public safety threat are unsubstantiated. In fact they may show the opposite effect: that immigrant communities and receiving communities are less trustful of law enforcement and that immigrants are being arrested and deported for extremely minor offences.

Napolitano defended the Secure Communities programs claiming that it has been implemented with no extra costs to the local and state police departments that are tasked with checking immigration status of individuals they arrest, and that it only identifies illegal immigration suspects who are already in jail. In fact both claims are still contentious and previous SPSSI publications, such as the Journal of Social Issues, 66:4, Immigrants and Hosts: Perceptions, Interactions and Transformations, have raised many questions about the possibility of racial profiling entering into law enforcement investigations.

Secretary Napolitano finished by saying that we can all agree that we need immigration laws that encourage strong commercial institutions and protect civil rights. It should not surprise people when numbers of deportations rise to record levels. However, we also ultimately need comprehensive federal legislative solutions to the challenges.

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

SPSSI Fact sheets relating to psychological research of immigration issues can be found at



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                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin