The enforcer of border laws

Savage is a writer in our Washington bureau.

As governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano last year signed into law the nation’s harshest penalty for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, a measure that would take away their business licenses for a second violation.

She called it the “business death penalty” and the “most aggressive action in the country” to stem the flow of illegal workers. She also criticized Congress and the federal government for failing to act on immigration overhaul. “The states will take the lead, and Arizona will take the lead among the states,” she said.

Now, Napolitano may have a chance to lead the federal effort to enforce immigration laws if, as expected, she is nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to head the Department of Homeland Security.


Her record in Arizona, where she has been both the U.S. attorney and the state’s attorney general, suggests she is willing to be a tough enforcer. Her state has a 376-mile border with Mexico, and she was the first governor to call for stationing the National Guard along it.

But Napolitano also has shown an instinct for finding her way through the immigration minefield in a state where political battle lines were well drawn. She took a centrist position, supporting strong steps to prevent new illegal immigrants from coming to Arizona, while opposing most measures that would punish illegal immigrants who were already living and working there.

Bucking popular sentiment, she vetoed a bill in 2005 that would have cut off in-state tuition aid to students in the country illegally. “This bill goes too far by punishing even longtime residents of this state who were brought here as small children by their parents,” she said.

She also vetoed bills that would have required the local police to enforce the immigration laws by arresting people in the state illegally.

“The illegal immigrant has in Gov. Napolitano his best friend in the state,” Republican state Rep. Tom Boone, a sponsor of these measures, said in reaction to her veto.

Nonetheless, the Democratic governor has remained popular in Republican-leaning Arizona. She was reelected two years ago by a nearly 2-1 ratio, and her approval rating is well over 70%.

“She has attempted to take a middle ground, and her view is it has calmed the debate in Arizona,” said John Trasvina, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles.

But a tough enforcer of existing immigration laws is not what his group was hoping for from the Obama administration. Trasvina said his group and other Latino groups might not support her nomination with enthusiasm. “Arizona has become one of the worst states for immigrants in this country,” he said. “I would say her record fits the state of Arizona, and we look forward to a different focus when she reaches Washington.”

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among other groups, have gone to court to challenge Arizona’s employer-sanction law. A federal judge upheld it in February; an appeal is pending in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Some advocates of stronger enforcement say Napolitano may be a good choice for Homeland Security secretary. “As governor, she has bitterly complained about the federal government’s failure to control immigration. Now she could have the opportunity to change things. She will be in charge of enforcement,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Napolitano has not been a backer of the border fence currently under construction: “You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder,” she has said.

But in a speech last year, she outlined a series of measures to control immigration, including an improved national employer verification system that would make use of Social Security data.

“Our current immigration system is broken. It is too easy for the ‘bad guys’ to enter our country and too difficult for the ‘good guys’ -- whose energies and intellects we need -- to obtain lawful status,” she said.

She called for a streamlined visa process and “tamper-proof immigration documents” that would reduce the use of fraudulent identifications.

She also proposed a “temporary worker program with no amnesty” that would help employers fill the need for workers. “Foreign labor should not be a substitute for U.S. workers, but it is critical that we bring foreign workers out of the shadows, put the clamps on the underground labor market and bring greater stability to our workforce,” she said.

At the same time, the federal government should force employers to check the immigration status of new workers. “We have the technology; now we need to put it to work . . . so employers can perform real-time verification” to assure that new workers are here legally, she said. “Employers who hire illegal immigrants -- and know it -- should be held accountable and penalized.”

And though Napolitano said she favored allowing foreign workers to come to the U.S. for temporary employment, she also said they should be called temporary workers. “I reject the term ‘guest’ worker,” she said. “To me, this implies someone coming here to take a vacation. These people are coming to work.”