New York Times
November 20, 2008
All along, while casting a skeptical eye on the border fence going up, calling for the National Guard to patrol the border, advocating for a guest worker program to reduce illegal immigration, promising more local law enforcement cooperation with Mexico, Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona has repeated something like a mantra: Security and immigration are the federal government’s responsibility.
Now, it could be hers.
President-elect Barack Obama, transition officials said, is planning to choose Ms. Napolitano, a border-state governor who lives and breathes the often-heated immigration debate, to head the Homeland Security Department.
Ms. Napolitano, 51, a former state and federal prosecutor who was re-elected to a second term as governor in 2006, has pleased and peeved both the left and right in her nearly six years as a Democratic governor in a Republican-leaning state whose border with Mexico is the country’s busiest crossing point for illegal immigrants.
“She has been in the eye of the storm on this issue and its intersection with border security,” said Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center at the American Immigration Law Foundation, a group that advocates for immigrants.
In private, Ms. Napolitano has been cordial with the man she would succeed, Michael Chertoff, but she has often been publicly critical of the Bush administration’s policies on border enforcement and illegal immigration.
While Mr. Chertoff has pushed hard to comply with a Congressional mandate to build nearly 700 miles of new fencing along the United States-Mexico border by the end of the year — even waiving some environmental laws to get it done — Ms. Napolitano has shown little enthusiasm for the project.
If you build a 50-foot-high wall, somebody will find a 51-foot ladder, she has often said in speeches and news conferences, while criticizing the Department of Homeland Security for persistent delays in deploying a “virtual fence” of cameras, sensors and other technology.
Last year, Ms. Napolitano reached a deal with Mr. Chertoff to make driver’s licenses more secure under a federal program known as REAL ID, but in June she signed a bill refusing to put the standards in place, calling the program an unfinanced federal mandate.
She was a vocal critic when Congress failed to pass legislation last year revamping immigration law and has also backed proposals favored by some immigrant advocacy groups, including a temporary worker program and “a strict and stringent pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants already here that would include learning English and paying fines.
But last year she also signed into law sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal workers and later complained when the Bush administration withdrew the bulk of the National Guard from the Mexican border earlier this year, as it had planned.
Also at home in Arizona, she has called raids by the sheriff in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, that have resulted in the deportation of scores of illegal immigrants “troublesome” and, much to the sheriff’s ire, withdrew state money that had financed some of his operations.
Doris Meissner, an immigration commissioner in the Clinton administration who is now a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, said: “I think it signals that under the new administration that immigration is an important part of the homeland security portfolio. I think she brings a balanced view that is going to be very constructive.”
But some who take a hard-line approach to stopping illegal immigration called the selection of Ms. Napolitano a travesty, saying she is not deeply committed to enforcement and underplays the importance of physical fences.
“I am trying to find a 51-foot ladder for her,” said J. D. Hayworth, a former Republican congressman from Arizona who now hosts a radio talk show. “I don’t think very many illegal aliens would be running around with 51-foot ladders. She has been playing both sides and does not bring a seriousness of purpose to the issue.”
Other advocates of stricter immigration laws gave her qualified support.
“My first thought is that Obama could do a lot worse,” said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a policy group in the Washington area, who went on to praise Ms. Napolitano’s law enforcement background while denouncing her support for a guest worker program as “amnesty.”
A Senate aide whose boss would be central in the confirmation process predicted that Ms. Napolitano’s confirmation would go smoothly and quickly, assuming no obstacles emerged from a background investigation.
“You can always raise, ‘What is her homeland security experience?’ ” said the aide, who spoke anonymously because his boss had not yet publicly addressed the potential nomination. “But you could raise that with anybody, including Michael Chertoff, before he took the post. And what the department really needs is a strong manager, a steady hand at the helm. Her record as attorney general and governor indicate she would be a strong leader for the department and a good manager.”
Homeland security, the third-largest cabinet department, is of course much more than border security. Among its units are the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As governor, Ms. Napolitano has not been tested by major natural disasters. But the few significant crises on her watch, mainly large forest fires and a prison hostage siege, she seemed to handle without much criticism.
Ms. Napolitano was serving as the state attorney general when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred, and she swiftly called for background checks on students in flight schools and denounced the shooting death of a Sikh man near Phoenix a few days after the attacks in what prosecutors called a hate crime.
But most of her record relevant to domestic security has come as governor.
She has been an active participant in meetings of governors from both sides of the Mexican border and at the most recent one, in Los Angeles last summer, she announced more cross-border cooperation in tracking guns used in drug violence in Mexico.
Ms. Napolitano has not cut a high national profile, and her precise, wonkish manner of speech does not always lend itself to sound bites. But she reached one sort of milestone last week when she was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”
The actor Paul Rudd, assuring that the Obama administration would allow for plenty of impersonations, asked the Napolitano knock-off what she would do about “border security legislation.”
“Let’s revamp it!” Kristen Wiig, a cast member impersonating Ms. Napolitano, cried out, saying nothing else and leaving the stage to laughter.