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Homeland Security chief visits Southland facilities

The nation’s top domestic security official toured Southern California’s bustling ports and biggest airport Monday as local officials plied her with requests for financial help to upgrade potentially vulnerable facilities.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took a flyover of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and surveyed recent security improvements at Los Angeles International Airport, including better fencing, systems to screen passenger vehicles and concrete barriers to prevent vehicles from crashing into airline terminals.

“It would be hard to identify a more critical area of the country in terms of the impact on infrastructure and on commerce than this area of Southern California,” Napolitano said in a news conference at the U.S. Coast Guard station on Terminal Island.

U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who accompanied Napolitano on the tour, said she and other local officials outlined other critical security upgrades in need of federal financial aid, including $60 million to complete the airport’s border fence. Harman said officials urged Napolitano to waive federal rules requiring local governments to kick in 25% of project financing.

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“A lot of good security improvements are being abandoned” because of funding shortfalls, Harman said.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the port areas and also joined the tour, said she urged Napolitano to allow local government to keep at least part of the $12 million in daily revenue generated at the Los Angeles Customs District to pay for port upgrades such as better sonar and perimeter security.

Napolitano made no commitments but said she would look into the idea, Hahn said.

The homeland security chief said workers at maritime facilities, who will be required to present biometric identification cards starting today, will have a 30-day window to obtain the cards if they have already been cleared by the system. The new requirement has drawn widespread complaints about the cost and bureaucracy, but Napolitano said the program has gone well so far.

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In other remarks, Napolitano said her department was placing new attention on the issue of substandard conditions in federal detention centers for immigrants. Immigrant activists in 20 states have launched a week of vigils, political action and educational events to draw attention to what they say are inhumane conditions in detention centers, where more than 90 detainees have died in federal custody, according to the Detention Watch Network and the Rights Working Group, two pro-immigrant coalitions representing more than 400 organizations.

Napolitano said the detention issue was at the bottom of the previous administration’s homeland security priorities but she had changed the department’s focus to bring “concrete and immediate action” to the issue. Among other things, she said, she had appointed top staff to investigate detainee healthcare conditions, contracts with private detention facilities and other issues.

She also said she would soon issue new guidelines on workplace raids to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Last month, the Obama administration said future raids would focus on employers who hire illegal workers rather than the laborers themselves. The raids have sparked widespread protests by immigrant rights activists, who say the focus on workers has torn families apart and squandered law enforcement resources better used against dangerous criminals or exploitative employers.

“The change is to make sure that we are doing everything we can to muster appropriate cases against those employers who consistently and intentionally use the illegal labor market, exploit the illegal labor market, for their own gain,” Napolitano said.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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