Friday, November 21, 2008

For Immigrants, a Friendly Choice

Sure, the incoming administration's choice of HHS chief might be giving some church-folk the agita... but for the key Cabinet portfolio that includes the ecclesial policy-priority of "comprehensive, humane" immigration reform, all appearances are that the president-elect's intended appointee is a woman the bosses can do business with.

With Janet Napolitano's name leaked as Barack Obama's intended secretary of Homeland Security, the Arizona guv's hometown paper recaps her record on the contentious issue:
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.

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 with smuggling 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?

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.
All that said, it's looking as if the new administration's "hard push" on the issue won't emerge until Year Two.

Keeping a (beat-related) eye on the Cabinet, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is said to be undergoing heavy vetting for one post or another... as is Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose alma mater recently mused that, in case a chair at the table didn't work out, might just end up with a seat on the bench -- the Supreme One.

PHOTO: Getty Images