Immigration leadership takes shape at Homeland Security

The Obama administration has announced two key immigration appointments.

Late Monday, President Obama said he would nominate veteran prosecutor John Morton to become the next assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Homeland Security Department. John P. Torres, a career law enforcement official, now holds that position on an acting basis. Morton is acting deputy assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's criminal division and has extensive experience in immigration enforcement.

Also on Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano selected Esther Olavarria to become deputy assistant secretary for policy. Olavarria spent nearly a decade as chief counsel to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., where she focused on immigration, border security and refugee issues and was involved in the failed effort to push through comprehensive immigration reform during President George W. Bush's second term -- an effort supported by Bush and Kennedy.

Few domestic issues are more complex or more controversial than immigration -- something both Morton and Olavarria know from long experience. In a statement, Napolitano said, "Both will be able and effective partners as we tackle the very complex issues surrounding immigration and securing of our borders."

Former ICE chief Julie Myers Wood said Morton is a "talented prosecutor" whose investigative and legal expertise would be an asset to the agency, along with his ties to Justice. Wood is now president of the Evanston, Ill., consulting firm Immigration and Customs Solutions, which aims to help clients comply with immigration laws.

Wood, herself a former prosecutor, said ICE works closely with the Justice Department's domestic security section, where Morton was acting chief and senior counsel to the assistant attorney general for the criminal division from September 2007 until last month. In those roles he was responsible for prosecuting criminal cases and developing policy in areas including human smuggling and passport and visa fraud.

"When I was at ICE one of the biggest issues we had was working with the Department of Justice to get them to take cases that we thought were priorities," Wood said. "I valued very much my relationships with Justice, and I thought they were critical to getting some very important cases done. I think [Morton] will be able to work well with the senior leadership there and explain why it's important that the significant immigration and customs cases are worked."

Wood also worked with Olavarria, when Olavarria was on Kennedy's staff, and said her political acumen would serve her well in Homeland Security's top policy position. "She certainly has a broad understanding of immigration issues and also knows very closely what the Hill thinks about certain things," Wood said.

Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who served as then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's chief immigration adviser from 2001 to 2003, agreed that Olavarria "has a huge amount of experience negotiating legislation and hammering out compromises on the Hill."

Kobach said when he was Ashcroft's adviser he enjoyed working with Olavarria, who was Kennedy's counsel at the time. But Kobach noted that while Olavarria is "very easy to get along with," he didn't share her political objectives.

"Esther has been a real mover and a shaker in the pro-amnesty movement," he said. "Depending on how much influence she has over ICE and [Customs and Border Protection] this could be bad for law enforcement."

He added it's not yet clear how much influence Olavarria will wield in department operations.

"Her nomination sends a pretty powerful signal that some sort of amnesty program," is likely to be pursued by the Obama administration, he said.

Olavarria left Kennedy's staff in 2007 to work as an adviser to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and later became director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Earlier in her career she was an attorney for a number of immigrant advocacy groups based in Miami.

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