WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday defended President Obama’s decision to stop deporting many illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children and allow them to seek work permits.
‘‘Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a strong and sensible manner,’’ Napolitano said in remarks before the House Judiciary Committee. ‘‘But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case.’’
Napolitano described the plan and defended the administration’s decision. The secretary’s appearance was her first before Congress since the plan was announced by the president in June.
He said then that he was easing immigration laws by executive order for many illegal immigrants brought to the country as children.
Under the policy change, illegal immigrants would be eligible to avoid deportation if they can prove they are 30 years old or younger, have been in the United States at least five years, arrived before they turned 16, graduated from a US high school or earned a GED or are currently in school and do not have a criminal record. They can also apply for a work permit that will be good for two years, with no limit on how many times it can be renewed.
The policy change could affect more than a million illegal immigrants and partially achieves the goals of the so-called Dream Act, legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for many young illegal immigrants.
Napolitano has said Homeland Security has broad authority to use discretion when deciding which illegal immigrants to deport, and said Thursday that a recent Supreme Court decision backs that authority.
‘‘Indeed as the Supreme Court noted in its recent decision on the Arizona immigration law, ‘a special feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials,’ ’’ she said.
Republicans have widely criticized the program, calling it ‘‘backdoor amnesty’’ that circumvents the will of Congress.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, has been among the harshest critics of the policies.
‘‘The administration’s amnesty agenda is a win for illegal immigrants but a loss for Americans,’’ Smith said in his opening statement.
‘‘Time and again the Department of Homeland Security has gone out of its way to avoid the enforcement of immigration laws. The Department of Homeland Security’s policy of nonenforcement will continue to cost innocent Americans their jobs.’’
He also said Thursday that he feared giving illegal immigrants the right to legally work in the United States would harm the struggling economy.
Napolitano said Homeland Security officials are still deciding what documents will be required for immigrants to prove they qualify to be spared from deportation and receive a work permit. Details of what will be required should be available by August, Napolitano said. She added that she did not know how many illegal immigrants would eventually get work permits.
Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, also questioned the administration’s legal authority to change the policy without congressional action and asked Napolitano to rescind the policy.
‘‘I will not rescind it; it’s right under the law,’’ Napolitano said.