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As Obama Considers Napolitano for Homeland Security Chief, a Look at Her Immigration Policies as Arizona Governor

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President-elect Barack Obama is on track to name Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security secretary. Napolitano is a two-term governor, as well as a former US attorney and state attorney general for Arizona. She was the first governor to call for National Guard troops to secure the US-Mexico border. We take a look at her immigration policies with Aarti Shahani, a researcher with Justice Strategies. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


We continue to look at the people slated to serve in the next White House cabinet. In the post of Homeland Security secretary, President-elect Barack Obama is on track to name Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.

Napolitano is a two-term governor, as well as a former US attorney and state attorney general for Arizona. If she lands the job as head of Homeland Security, Napolitano would be in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy with more than 200,000 employees and a $50 billion budget. The department includes the Bureau of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE; the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA; as well as the Secret Service; the US Coast Guard; and other agencies.

While Napolitano has not confirmed that Obama offered her the position, Arizona Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, praised her selection at a news conference yesterday at his Phoenix office.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I certainly applaud many of the appointments that President-elect Obama has announced, including what is pretty well known, and that is the selection of Governor Janet Napolitano as the new head of the Department of Homeland Security. I have already talked with her and look forward to moving her nomination as quickly as possible through the United States Senate. I think she’s highly qualified, and we, as citizens of Arizona, are very proud to have a border state governor and someone with her knowledge and expertise serving in this very, very important and vital position. I think we all know that we face challenges from Islamic extremism throughout the world. And I believe that she will do an outstanding job.


Governor Napolitano has supported comprehensive immigration reform along the lines pushed by Senator McCain before the presidential campaign. She was the first governor to call for National Guard troops to be deployed along the US-Mexico border. This is Napolitano speaking about immigration in 2006.

    GOV. JANET NAPOLITANO: As US attorney, I supervised the prosecution of more than 6,000 immigration cases. As attorney general, we wrote the law that breaks up human smuggling rings by seizing their assets. And as governor, I have worked closely with Arizona’s border communities to address illegal immigration head on. We’ve cracked down on human trafficking by increasing the penalty for illegal immigrants who commit crimes in the United States. And we’ve disrupted dozens of criminal syndicates involved in human smuggling through our fraudulent ID taskforce. We’ve redesigned Arizona’s ports of entry to better detect illegal cross-border activity. And we’ve utilized new technology to track stolen vehicles that transport illegal immigrants and drugs on our highways. We’ve fought to increase the presence of the National Guard on the border at federal expense. And today, National Guard members from Arizona and around the country are stationed at the border providing critical support to the Border Patrol so they can do less paperwork and more law enforcement.


For more on Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, I’m joined by Aarti Shahani, a researcher with Justice Strategies. She teaches at New York University, is co-founder of Families for Freedom. Welcome to Democracy Now!


Hi. Thanks for having me.


Well, yesterday we were looking in-depth at the economic team, what they call the “E-Team” of President-elect Obama. Now, today, immigration. Though Governor Napolitano has not been exactly named, that is the rumor that is going around.


I think we should take pause and look at Governor Napolitano. She’s right now being celebrated as a liberal on immigration who can finally breathe some fresh air into a very stale and hateful debate. The fact about Governor Napolitano is that she’s the leading Democratic hawk on immigration. Her legacy in Arizona has been two-fold, and I think it’s important to look at the nuance here. She rose to power politically as a prosecutor, under Bill Clinton as an attorney general. She won the governorship in 2003.

Soon after she won the governorship, Arizona, which is the nation’s leading immigration enforcement state — I mean, if you want to understand what is the future of immigration enforcement, look at the state of Arizona and what it’s done. In her state, there were basically white supremacist groups trying to pass, and effectively passing, a bill called Proposition 200 through a ballot initiative. Proposition 200, back in November of 2004, required that just about any public servant start calling in a suspected undocumented person for deportation. It’s sort of the prelude to the Sensenbrenner bill that people blew up about in 2005. Governor Napolitano looked at this bill, and she said, “This is hateful. This is wrong.” And she didn’t veto it, but she basically backdoor-vetoed it by dragging her feet on its implementation.

Now, the punch line comes when, to save political capital or to try to regain political capital, because there was a lot of falling out over her move there, she said, “Listen, I’m not against cracking down on illegal immigrants. I’m just saying that we should crack down on the right types of illegal immigrants.” And she introduced her own tough-on-immigration platform. Now, that platform is two-fold. Part of it is enhanced border enforcement. The fact is, she called border crossing a national security crisis, the first governor to do that in US history, wanted to bring in Homeland Security resources to protect against this border crossing.

Now, the other piece of the story that I think people aren’t as familiar with is that she actually made a name for herself in Homeland Security circles by regularly writing to Chertoff and lobbying him to bring not just more border security resources to Arizona, but ICE resources to Arizona. Specifically, Governor Napolitano wanted to see an increase of interior immigration enforcement in Phoenix and areas outside of border communities.

She was the first governor to broker a 287(g) agreement with ICE. Now, I’m not sure how many people know what 287(g) is about, but basically 287(g) is a tiny piece of law passed by Bill Clinton back in 1996. It was resurrected by ICE as a leading pilot project to devolve immigration enforcement from federal to local hands, that is, to bring the border to the interior, so to speak. So, Governor Napolitano was the first Democrat, the first one really around the country to say, “We want 287(g) in our state.” And she opened up the door to all of the local enforcement, the stopping-while-driving-while-brown-type stuff we’re seeing in Arizona.

She has a very peculiar relationship with Joe Arpaio. Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County is known as, you know, a total — the toughest sheriff in America is what he calls himself. That’s his autobiography. Janet Napolitano readily went to Joe Arpaio back in 2005 and said, “For our immigration agenda, we need some of your jails,” because he runs a tent city, for which he was being sued left and right. “We need some of your jails.” And Joe Arpaio said to her, “You know, if we have to, we’ll build jails from here down to Mexico to hold the immigrants that you want to pick up.”


Now, wasn’t she criticized for signing agreement with him, with Arpaio, the last day that she was the US attorney, ending a federal investigation into allegedly inhumane conditions at his prisons? Describe — I mean, Arpaio is not your typical law enforcement officer.


Right, right. I mean, Arpaio’s theory on law enforcement is, let’s take all the handcuffs off. And so, there is — Arpaio is known for running a tent city. He’s the first sheriff to start a woman chain gang. He puts people in these tents in the hot blazing Arizona sun. He says they’re hardcore criminals. The fact is, they’re all people that are pre-trial detainees that are being charged with crimes but not yet convicted or people that are receiving less than a year’s sentence. In Arpaio’s jails, you’ve had situations where people are dying. He makes a joke of feeding his prisoners green bologna and putting on them pink shorts to emasculate them. There were a series of lawsuits from 2002 through 2005, where people were suing Arpaio for deaths in his jails. The fact — and a lot of lawsuits that were won, I mean, I think over $11 million in settlements, where Maricopa County had to pay out for Arpaio’s games.

Now, all of this was going on, and Napolitano, because she is a tough-on-crime, law-and-order Democrat, was willing to look the other way on that stuff and say, “You know what? It’s OK that he’s doing that stuff, because he can serve a purpose in this broader agenda that we’re trying to push.” And so, I think that right now, as Arpaio has gotten politically very unpopular, she’s now trying to distance herself from him. But I think it’s dangerous to not see the connection between them.


I wanted to turn to Janet Napolitano’s take on the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo and CNN anchor Lou Dobbs. She’s questioning — she’s responding to a question about Tancredo and Dobbs after her speech at the National Press Club last February.

    GOV. JANET NAPOLITANO: They have both refused to acknowledge, this is, that what they have proposed won’t work, that it is more rhetoric than real, and it’s not a solution to this problem. And the way I know this is, (a), because I know this issue very, very well, and I deal with it day in, day out, and I have, as I mentioned, since I was the United States attorney, but also because the people of Arizona get this. I mean, if you just look at how they’ve voted over the past few years, people of Arizona, they’re mad, they’re frustrated. As I’ve said, they have every right to be so. They have put into place initiatives to foreclose the supply of public benefits to illegal immigrants. They don’t want their taxpayer dollars going for that.

    On the other hand, myself; Gabby Giffords, who was recently elected to the Congress from the southern part of the state; Harry Mitchell, who recently defeated J.D. Hayworth and came to the Congress from the Maricopa County area — you know, their opponents all were banging kind of the Lou Dobbs, Tom Tancredo line, and it didn’t win. And it didn’t win, because people in Arizona — and I think they’re probably a little bit beyond people in other non-border states — understand that immigration has to be dealt with with all the elements I set out and that if all you do is talk about building a wall or sealing the border, you’re not giving them a real solution, because — you know why? They’ve been to the border. Because — you know why? They understand how whole elements of their economies depend on immigrant labor and, to some degree now, illegal immigrant labor.


That’s Governor Napolitano. Aarti Shahani, she is being rumored to be the next head of Homeland Security.


I think the salient part about Governor Napolitano as a federal executive, as opposed to a state one, is, on the state level, she pushed some of the most right-wing agendas on immigration enforcement. She went full speed ahead with the Bush agenda to move immigration enforcement from federal to local hands. She lobbied for federal money and for federal resources to up immigration enforcement in Arizona.

So now the question is going to be, once she becomes a federal executive, is she going to continue with the same legacy she had on the state level? Is she going to continue to bang the drum, saying we need to get money to states so that they can do their own immigration enforcement just like the state of Arizona did? Is she trying to replicate the Arizona model around the country? Or is she going to take pause and say, “You know what? Maybe immigration enforcement as the leading strategy on immigration isn’t the right thing”?

And I think when you look also at what she’s proposing, I mean, Governor Napolitano actually approved the first state-level employer sanctions bill in the country. She believes in a state-level guest worker program in the state of Arizona. Now, we all know that guest worker programs are not the way to ensure immigrant rights, immigrant workers’ rights, American workers’ rights, in the coming administration. And so, I think that the fact that that’s such a cutting part of her agenda is reason to be afraid.


I also wanted to ask you just very quickly about these major raids that took place in Laurel, Mississippi and Postville, Iowa, one during the Democratic Convention — these are the largest immigration raids in US history — and what they portend, with the major candidates hardly raising the issue of immigration at all.


These raids are happening, because ICE is going into local communities and devastating their local democracies by going into totally unstrategic sites with no plan whatsoever and basically striking fear. A great question for Governor Napolitano will be, as head of
Homeland Security, will she actually try to freeze ICE activity? Will she actually try to put a cap on what they’re doing, all of the charades and the show? And will she actually look at Homeland Security from a holistic perspective?


And finally, not far from here, in Long Island, in Suffolk County, immigrants’ rights advocates have filed a complaint with the US Justice Department. A Latino justice contends that the Suffolk County police discouraged Latinos from reporting crimes. And the reason this is so critical now — it follows the November 8th killing of Marcelo Lucero — crime victims being afraid to go to the police, because they’re afraid that they will be working with ICE, with immigration authorities, question their immigration status.


Within the state of Arizona, it is basically understood that victims of crimes, when they call the police, are going to be turned in for deportation. That’s certainly true in Maricopa County. So Governor Napolitano can look at what’s happening around the country and see that the natural after-step of heightened, intensive state-sponsored enforcement is hate crimes. That’s going to be the case. And so, if we want to put a stop on that type of populist or, you know, private citizen reaction to foreign-born people, the government has to set a better example, as well.


And do you think there will be less targeting overall under a President Obama?


You know, I hope so. And it’s really hard to imagine that it could be any worse under Obama than it was under Bush. And so, I’d actually want to say that we should expect more from Obama than just stopping the sheer fascism of the Bush administration. We should hope from Obama that, for example, immigrants are actually restored the ability to drive, the basic driver’s license, which he brought up during his presidential campaign and was supportive of.

I think another thing that we should expect from Obama is to look at this entire system of mass detention. Immigrants are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population in this country. That’s not just because of George Bush. It’s because of policies set by Bill Clinton, as well. The fact is, people are dying in detention. Hundreds of people have died in civil detainee custody. So, can we expect Obama to now look at this massive system and say, “We shouldn’t be locking people up this way”?


Aarti Shahani, I want to thank you very much for being with us, researcher with Justice Strategy. She teaches at New York University and co-founded the immigrants rights group, Families for Freedom.

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