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Hawk or Hack? By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It’s fitting that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, president-elect Barack Obama's likely pick for Homeland Security secretary, hails from a border state. Since its creation in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security has been regarded mainly as a counterterrorism agency. But with three of its member agencies focusing on immigration, DHS also is very much at the center of the debate about the country’s immigration policy, including illegal immigration. How would Napolitano approach that contentious issue?

A review of her gubernatorial record, as well as interviews with Arizona political insiders, suggests no definitive answer. From one perspective, Napolitano understands the problem of illegal immigration and has taken halting steps to combat it. As governor, Napolitano in August 2005 declared a “state of emergency” along Arizona’s border with Mexico, clearing the way for the National Guard to block illegal entry into the United States. Restrictionists again found an ally in the Democratic governor in July of 2007, when she signed an employer-sanctions law that made it a crime for businesses to hire illegal immigrants. Employers protested, but Napolitano stood firm, explaining that she signed the law “out of the realization that the flow of illegal immigration into our state is due to the constant demand of some employers for cheap, undocumented labor.” Just one month before signing the sanctions law, Napolitano wrote an op-ed in Washington Post boasting that under her watch Arizona saw the apprehensions of 550,000 illegal immigrants in 2005 alone. “Don't label me soft on illegal immigration,” Napolitano wrote.  

Her critics, however, have done just that – and not without evidence. Tough talk notwithstanding, not everyone agrees that Napolitano has taken a hard line on illegal immigration. Republican State Senator Linda Gray, a 12-year veteran of the Arizona legislature, dismisses the governor’s support for border control as so much political posturing. “Tough on immigration and border control?” Gray asks. “The legislature appropriated money for our National Guard to be at the border and she did not use the funds,” says Gray. “The major reason she signed the employer sanction bill was because she didn't want the harsher initiative that was headed for the ballot.”  

If Gray is skeptical of Napolitano’s credentials as an immigration hawk, it’s because she has clashed with the governor before. In 2003, for instance, Gray sponsored House Bill 2345. Designed to curb voter fraud, the bill would have required voters to present a driver’s license or two forms of identification when voting. Not only did Napolitano veto the bill but she supported a proposal that would have granted driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. (Napolitano has since been muted in her for support issuing licenses to illegals.) Look beyond the rhetoric, critics like Gray say, and there is less to the governor’s record than meets the eye. A case in point: In the same Washington Post op-ed in which she challenged opponents to call her “soft” on immigration, Napolitano came out in favor of the Senate bill that effectively would have granted amnesty to illegal immigrants had it not been defeated. “She supports driver’s licenses for illegals which could not make through the legislature, and she supports amnesty,” says Gray. “That is hardly someone who is tough on immigration.”

Echoing Gray’s concerns is Republican state Rep. John Kavanagh. “I give her mixed credit,” says Kavanagh, whose bill proposing restrictions on “day laborers,” who often are illegal immigrants, was vetoed by Napolitano in 2007. Kavanagh notes that even as the governor has sent the National Guard to the border, “she’s been weak on internal enforcement.” He cites as evidence her opposition to requiring police to enforce federal immigration laws. Critics have long argued that empowering police to enforce immigration laws would remove de facto protections for illegal immigrants, including known criminals, and end “sanctuary cities” in which immigration laws are violated with impunity. Yet this April, Napolitano vetoed precisely such a bill, calling it “unnecessary.”

It is a curious fact of Arizona politics that despite her stance on sanctuary cities, Napolitano has found a supporter – of sorts – in one of state’s more famous foes of illegal immigration: Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-described “America’s Toughest Sheriff” from Arizona’s south-central Maricopa County. “The problem isn’t the immigration laws,” says Arpaio, who points out that his 160 deputies, trained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Homeland Security member agency, have arrested 2,439 illegals to date under state and federal illegal immigration laws. “The problem is that some political officials don’t like me enforcing the laws.”  

One of those politicians, at least on occasion, is Janet Napolitano. This May, the governor decided to transfer the sheriff’s $1.6-million state-funded grant to fight illegal immigration to the Department of Public Safety (DPS), a state agency. Sheriff Arpaio was not pleased. One thing you don't do is try to take away my money,” he thundered at the time. “I still have a gun and a badge.” Six months later, the Sheriff is still sore about the governor’s decision. “She took my money away on the idea that DPS would pursue outstanding 40,000 [felony] warrants. That’s all garbage. I think she got some bad advice and she made a bad error.” Still, the sheriff says that he has no hard feelings. “We’ve known each other for 16-years and we have a mutual respect for each other.” And while Arpaio isn’t entirely sold on the governor becoming DHS head (“I’ll still blast her”) or even on the idea of the department itself (he calls it a “massive bureaucratic organization that shouldn’t exist”), neither is he willing to condemn her selection. He may not always agree with the governor on illegal immigration, Arpaio says, “but I give her credit.”

Some immigration hawks have also taken a charitable view of the Napolitano appointment. Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, says that “she is probably the least bad person that an Obama administration could have picked.” But Krikorian cautions against expecting too much from Napolitano. As grounds for pessimism, he cites her 2006 veto of a bill that would have given police the authority to arrest illegal immigrants for trespassing. “It’s not that she’s done nothing – her hawkish credentials are not entirely fictitious – but at the same time there’s not much to it,” Krikorian says. On the other hand, he observes, “how much more of a hawkish person could we have expected given this administration’s view?”

Immigration politics aside, another question raised by her nomination is whether the term-limited governor really is interested in the DHS job or whether she will use it as a springboard for an Arizona Senate seat. For instance, there had been speculation that she would run for John McCain’s Senate seat in 2010 were he to retire. McCain’s announcement Tuesday that he will run again would seem to rule out the possibility, but close observers of the state’s politics suspect that the governor could still challenge Arizona’s other Senator, Republican Jon Kyl, in 2012.

All which makes Napolitano’s entry into the national spotlight as much a hazard as an opportunity. The mark of a successful DHS secretary, Rep. John Kavanagh notes, is avoiding disaster on their watch. With the nation’s illegal immigration problem very much in disaster territory that may be easier said than done. Perhaps the best thing to be said for Napolitano is that, as a veteran of Arizona’s bruising immigration battles, she will not be going into the job in blindly.

Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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