As we watch the transition team for President-elect Barack Obama forming, the most telling immigration-related appointment so far has been that of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who will likely head the Department of Homeland Security - a thankless task that includes authority over US immigration enforcement. So let's take a quick look at Napolitano's policies and statements as Governor on immigration reform. Reports the LA Times:
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.Said the Arizona Star:
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. ...
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.
The governor is neither an immigration hawk, nor an open-border advocate, Kavanagh said, pointing out that she wanted National Guard troops at the border but also vetoed an expansion of the list of government benefits denied to immigrants. "Her sympathy for illegal aliens reduces her enthusiasm for border security," Kavanagh said.The Arizona Republic reminds us that "She ... opposed the government's Real ID mandate for biometric ID cards because it shifted billions of dollars of costs onto states like Arizona." So a former opponent and critic of REAL ID is now responsible for implementing its provisions (or else convincing Congress to repeal it).
A few initial thoughts: First, former US Attorneys like Napolitano and likely Attorney General Eric Holder are getting a lot of primo slots so far. Obama's own US Attorney appointments merit watching if that's such a political gateway for this Administration.
Second, as a critic of the border wall and Real ID, I'd love to see Napolitano lead the charge to repeal both those bad initiatives. In Arizona where there's a land border, perhaps the calculus is different. But Texas already has a moat! If that can't be adequately policed, a wall won't provide any greater barrier.
Any money saved by eliminating the do-nothing border wall, though, should NOT be sunk into putting National Guard troops on the border, as Napolitano advocated as Governor. Instead, such savings should be invested in expanding DHS' immigration processing bureaucracy to eliminate backlogs for legal immigration, and ultimately to expand legal immigration through what I hope will be comprehensive immigration reform passed sometime in the next 2-3 years.
These backlogs are entirely a function of the federal government failing to adequately staff DHS and they have real-world human consequences that can be devastating for those involved. Did you happen to watch the story on 60 Minutes last night about DHS evicting widows from the country because their husbands died while they were on the approval waiting list? One woman's husband died serving the US military in Iraq, but immigration officials won't allow his widow and their child (an American citizen) to stay in the country together. That's both insufferable and unnecessary.
For my money, the best thing a new DHS chief could do on the immigration front would be to loosen the spigot to allow more legal immigration, processing cases much faster to avoid putting people in a bad personal situation because their paperwork has not been completed. In other words, DHS needs to do the (many) jobs it's already assigned much better before launching on quixotic quests like a border wall. Some such initiatives will require Congressional action, but DHS could do a lot of its own accord by exercising discretion regarding current rules (as in the case of the evicted widows) and beefing up staff to process cases.
Grits' main focus regarding immigration stems from the use of public safety resources and tactics to solve what's essentially an economic and social problem - particularly the rise of immigration detention as the fastest growing group of incarcerated people in America, outpacing even the drug war as a source of new prisoners. The only difference (and it's not a big one when you're in jail) is that, in most instances, immigrants are incarcerated for civil violations, not criminality in the same sense as the guy who burglarizes your house. In fact, by any measure, immigrants commit fewer crimes than their US citizen counterparts.
It's hard to know what will happen on immigration during an Obama Administration or when they might decide to wrestle with that particular tar baby. But I like that someone who was a staunch critic of DHS will now run the place because the agency needs a housecleaning. Napolitano gets a chance to put up or shut up, while the agency gets a chance - after the first transition of Presidential power in its short existence - to re-focus on its core priorities.
One minor silver lining of the slumping economy might be that it buys a little time for Congress and the new administration to act. So many immigrants worked in the construction trades and service industries that the economic collapse has already done more to reduce illegal immigration than any government policy. Perhaps that economic reality, combined with expanded Democratic majorities in Congress (and even aided, one imagines, by John McCain's return to the Senate), will create a window for Ms. Napolitano in which she and the new President can defuse some of the pointless culture war battles that normally surround this issue, focusing instead on a pragmatic, solutions oriented debate centered on economics and security.