Homeland Security pick signals moderate immigration approach

by Daniel González and Sean HolstegeThe Arizona Republic
November 21st, 2008

In making Gov. Janet Napolitano his top pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, President-elect Barack Obama has signaled a moderate approach toward immigration and border policies and laid the path to pursue comprehensive reform later.

As the Democratic governor of a border state and a former federal prosecutor, Napolitano would bring to the job years of experience in dealing with border and immigration issues, something previous Homeland Security chiefs have lacked. She also negotiated the political minefield of the immigration debate in a state where the issue has often reached fever pitch.

Yet Napolitano also could be haunted by her own words.

She has been a fierce critic of the federal government on a number of border security and immigration issues.

She criticized the decision to pull back the National Guard from the border before the fence was done. She lobbied Washington to adequately compensate border communities for the costs of dealing withsmuggling and illegal immigration.

She also opposed the government's Real ID mandate for biometric ID cards because it shifted billions of dollars of costs onto states like Arizona.

The question is, after years of making demands, would she follow her own advice?

Centrist reputation

One of the governor's principal advantages is her ability to steer a centrist course, observers say.

On immigration, "she has a reputation that largely is one of not going too far to the left and not going too far to the right, but seeing the shades of gray," said Arizona State University political science Professor Rodolfo Espino.

Napolitano also has worked with officials in Mexico on border security without disrupting commerce.

"She has made efforts to strengthen ties to Mexico and not shutting down the border in a way that would be detrimental to the flow of goods and people across the border," said José Cardenas, the former president of the Arizona-Mexico Commission.

Matt Rojansky, executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan think tank of former national security officials, said Obama and Napolitano are unlikely to chart a significantly new course. Position papers by the Center for American Progress, which has advised the Obama team, point to the new administration's goals, Rojansky said.

Among the center's proposals:


• "Keep borders open, but make them smarter."


• Subsidize the cost of passports and secure identity documents.


• Make homeland security the National Guard's job and eliminate critical equipment shortages facing the Guard.


• Expand homeland-security grant spending to states.

These recommendations mirror Napolitano's positions as Arizona governor.

Napolitano has been critical of the federal government for failing to pass reforms that combine get-tough border security and immigration enforcement with actions that consider the country's labor needs, including a temporary-worker program.

She edged to the middle on border security and immigration enforcement, often to the dismay of the state's 1.8 million Latinos, some 650,000 of whom are immigrants.

Early in her tenure, she supported allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, but more recently she signed one of the toughest employer-sanctions laws in the country.

She led the charge for placing National Guard troops on the border and declared a state of emergency along portions of the Mexican border. The declarations freed up state money to help border communities deal with escalating crime and violence tied to human smuggling.

Still, Napolitano has resisted pressure from the state's Republican-controlled Legislature to take an even harder stance against illegal immigration. She vetoed more than a dozen bills aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants.

Earlier this year, Napolitano also yanked $1.6 million in state funding from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to blunt his efforts to arrest illegal immigrants through crime sweeps that critics said were terrorizing immigrant communities and violating civil rights.

Napolitano's initiatives include pacts with governors of states on both sides of the border. She created one of the nation's first counterterrorism fusion centers, and set up state task forces to track gangs, drophouses, stolen cars, fraudulent IDs and money wired to smugglers.

"She'll bring an understanding of all the border issues, not just security, but the social issues and economic issues, too." said Randall Larsen, director of the nonpartisan Institute for Homeland Security, in Alexandria, Va.

Money challenges

One of Napolitano's biggest challenges could be lack of funding.

"She will bring valuable experience in dealing with DHS' unfunded mandates," Rojansky said. "DHS has a tendency to throw money at a lot of problems. The money's not available . . . They're going to have to solve the problem another way."

That issue plays into another potential weakness Napolitano brings to the post. Some homeland-security experts point to her lack of experience in dealing with Congress and the Beltway establishment.

If named, she would inherit a mammoth bureaucracy that answers to dozens of congressional committees.

Possible changes

If confirmed, Napolitano is expected to follow through with the Bush administration's emphasis on beefing up border security, raiding work sites and deporting more illegal immigrants. The strategy is aimed at gaining public credibility in the nation's immigration system to pave the way for comprehensive reforms that were shot down in 2006 and 2007.

But some fear Napolitano would place more attention on deporting criminals and arresting unscrupulous employers while giving undocumented immigrants a break.

"There are ways of softening enforcement, but they can't just pull the plug all the way," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group in Washington, D.C., that favors an enforcement-only strategy.

"She (Napolitano) has cultivated an image of toughness on immigration enforcement, but much of that image is for show," Krikorian said.

Napolitano signed Arizona's employer-sanctions law "unwillingly because she was afraid voters would pass a tougher" ballot initiative, Krikorian said.

She also has criticized erecting hundreds of miles of fencing along the border, saying, "You show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border. That's the way the border works."

Napolitano is also expected to review the federal program known as 287 (g) that allows the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and other local police to partner with federal immigration authorities to enforce immigration laws.

Arpaio said he had lunch with Napolitano this week, and they discussed a bit the possibility of her moving to Washington to work in the Obama administration.

He said even if Napolitano alters or scuttles the 287 (g) program, he will continue to arrest illegal immigrants under the state's anti-smuggling law.

"It doesn't matter to me. I'm still going to enforce the state laws, and those laws are pretty strong," Arpaio said. " . . . I think the governor has an open mind."