Napolitano Nomination Draws Strong Reactions

Border and immigration activists responded with divergent assessments of the nomination of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the Obama White House. On the positive side, the directors of two Washington D.C.-based immigrant advocacy organizations gave thumbs up to the selection of the Democratic governor as the nation’s internal security czar.

In a joint statement preceding the formal announcement of Napolitano’s nomination,  Ben Johnson of the American Immigration Law Foundation and Angela Kelly of the Immigration Policy Center praised Napolitano for taking measures to “secure our borders” while acknowledging  the need for creating a system to bring undocumented workers into the mainstream of US life.

“Her life of public service is a testament to her incredible integrity, aptitude and commitment to the American people,” said Johnson and Kelly.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the America’s Voice immigrant advocacy group, offered a similar take on the Napolitano nomination.

“On the issue of immigration, Governor Napolitano gets it,” Sharry said. “She knows that an integral part of securing the borders and restoring control and order to our broken immigration system is enacting comprehensive immigration reform.”

But Napolitano’s nomination also inspired words of caution from other immigrant rights activists. For instance, border organizers for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) scored Napolitano for ordering the emergency deployment of the National Guard on the Arizona-Sonora border in 2005 as well as for implementing a widely-criticized  electronic verification system of workers’ legal status.

“Governor Napolitano has pushed for an employment verification program in Arizona that is largely ineffective and relies on erroneous information,” contended Caroline Issacs, director of the Tucson-based AFSC’s Arizona Area Program. “If we can expect this type of program on a national level, as has been proposed by outgoing President Bush, there will be no real ‘change’ from the incoming Obama administration, just further attempts to criminalize the right-to-work for migrant workers and their families.”

The AFSC called on Napolitano as the new homeland security chief to rectify abuses stemming from laws and policies the human rights group said should be repealed or eliminated, including the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the Real ID Act of 2005 and Operation Streamline, a Border Patrol campaign that jails and prosecutes undocumented migrants in Arizona and Texas. In the past, Napolitano has criticized the border fence currently under construction by the DHS.

On the other side of the immigration debate, the American Patrol organization, which supports  cracking down on undocumented workers and endorses the border wall, among other security measures, expressed alarm at the Napolitano nomination. The group contended that the Arizona governor did not know how to effectively deploy National Guard troops or protect the border.

“Janet Napolitano has demonstrated that she either does not understand how border security really works, or that she does understand it and works to subvert it,” said a statement on the American Patrol website. “Together with (Arizona Congressman) Grijalva at Interior we should be very worried about the security of our homeland with Janet Napolitano at the head of DHS.”

The reactions to Napolitano’s nomination suggest that hot button immigration and border security issues which were largely packed away in the political closet during the 2008 presidential campaign could come to the fore again in 2009 after the new administration assumes office.

Sources: US/Mexico Border Program (AFSC), December 1, 2008. Press statement. America’s Voice,  December 1, 2008. Press statement. American Patrol, November 28, 2008. Immigration Policy Center, November 21, 2008. Press statement.


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