After years of dealing with border issues in Arizona, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will have a lead role in President Obama’s push for nationwide immigration reform.
In Obama’s tumultuous first year, comprehensive immigration reform has taken a back seat to the economy, health care and the environment. But Obama is widely expected to push for immigration reform in 2010, and Napolitano may end up being the public face of the administration during the debate.
“Somebody’s going to have to quarterback that,” James Carafano, of the Washington think-tank the Heritage Foundation, said of comprehensive immigration reform. “I would put immigration on par with health care and cap-and-trade as kind of like one of these third-rail issues that can make or break a secretary.”
When Obama tapped Napolitano to head up the Department of Homeland Security, many observers believed her experience in dealing with illegal immigration and border issues as Arizona’s governor and attorney general made her an ideal candidate for the position. The apparent shift in priority from counterterrorism to other agency functions, primarily illegal immigration, was widely considered a sign that Obama would attempt to tackle immigration reform.
Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said the president asked Napolitano in June to be his point person on comprehensive immigration reform, “as it moved forward down the road into the future.” In mid-August, she hosted a White House meeting on the issue, which was attended by about 130 stakeholders.
David Olive, of the consulting firm Catalyst Partners in Washington, said many of the associates Napolitano brought from Arizona to the Department of Homeland Security are experienced in border issues as well. He cited Maria Luisa O’Connell, who left her position as president of the Scottsdale-based Border Trade Alliance in August to head up U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s public affairs division, as someone who can help Napolitano in the upcoming debate.
“She’s got a long association with Secretary Napolitano, and is well-known and is very well-liked. And I think so long as she continues to bring in people like that, she will be able to lead better because there are people who understand and can articulate her policies and her vision for the department,” Olive said.
Of the 20 or so people Napolitano brought with her from Arizona to Washington, several have extensive experience with immigration and border issues and have filled similar positions at Homeland Security. Former Napolitano aide Suzie Barr now serves as chief of staff for the assistant secretary at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and former state Department of Corrections chief Dora Schriro works for ICE as an adviser on detention and removal. Former Arizona Department of Commerce Director and Nogales Mayor Marco Lopez and Toni Morales, former political director for the Arizona Democratic Party, are now at Customs and Border Protection.
Jeanine L’Ecuyer, who was Napolitano’s communications director in the Governor’s Office, also pointed to former chief of staff Jan Lesher and deputy chief of staff Noah Kroloff, who now hold similar positions under Napolitano in Washington, as Arizona transplants to Homeland Security who have a great deal of expertise in immigration issues. Lesher once headed up Napolitano’s Southern Arizona office, and dealt frequently with border county sheriffs and federal officials on immigration issues, and Kroloff “was involved in every discussion that occurred in the office related to immigration policy,” L’Ecuyer said.
“Right at the top there you’ve got two people who are her right and left arms, if you will, who are (well) versed and experts in these areas as well,” L’Ecuyer said in reference to Lesher and Kroloff. “She’s got some really knowledgeable, really good folks around her.”
Carafano said the number of Napolitano loyalists who are in key immigration and border-related positions shows Napolitano’s intention to make her mark on any bill the Obama administration crafts on immigration reform. “She’s definitely micromanaging. … She’s definitely driving policy on immigration and the border in the department, using her people to do that. That is a fact,” he said.
Carafano, whose organization focuses heavily on homeland security issues, said Obama’s decision to put Napolitano in charge of such a key agenda item shows the president’s faith in his Homeland Security secretary. He described comprehensive immigration reform as a make-or-break issue for Napolitano.
“Giving her immigration was huge. (Obama) didn’t have to do that,” Carafano said. “They’ll be her policies. If they’re successful, that’s good. If they’re not successful, she’ll be the one holding the bag.”
Clark Ervin, director of the homeland security project at the Aspen Institute, a Washington think-tank, and a member of Napolitano’s transition team at the Department of Homeland Security, said Obama’s decision to make her his point person on the issue shows the president’s trust in her. But he disagreed that it would make or break her tenure at the agency.
“Getting comprehensive reform is important to her political future, but not indispensable. I think people understand that it’s a complex issue,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times via e-mail. “I do think the number of staff brought over is notable. I think it indicates a desire to be surrounded by people she knows and trusts. Understandable, but it can be misinterpreted by long-timers and new appointees as a lack of confidence in them.”
Obama’s trust in Napolitano seems evident in the face of her role in the immigration reform debate, and the former Arizona governor is reputed to be among the president’s favorite Cabinet officials. She shocked many in the political world by backing Obama over Sen. Hillary Clinton in Arizona’s Democratic primary in 2008, and was among the last four names on Obama’s short list to replace Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The extent of Napolitano’s prominence in Washington may be partly signified by the sheer number of people she brought to Homeland Security from Arizona. About 20 people have followed her to the department, an unusually high number, according to observers in Washington. And others who were close to Napolitano in Arizona have found jobs elsewhere in the federal system, including former chief of staff Dennis Burke, whom Obama recently named U.S. attorney for Arizona; former Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Director Steve Owens, now an assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and former Arizona Department of Transportation Director Victor Mendez, who now heads up the Federal Highway Administration.
Washington lobbyist Ron Bonjean said the number of people Napolitano brought with her to Washington is notable, but ultimately irrelevant to most people, as long as they’re qualified and do their jobs well. But he questioned the notion that Napolitano is among the innermost of Obama’s inner circle, saying that’s a perception held more commonly by Arizonans than others in Washington or the rest of the country.
“I think it’s more of a regional perception than it is a national perception. Because the Obama administration has taken on so many initiatives, primarily regarding the economy and health care, it’s hard to see on a national level how close she is actually to the president until a national crisis hits,” Bonjean said.