When former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano stepped down as the Department of Homeland Security secretary in August, the reaction from policymakers along Arizona’s border with Mexico was mixed.
On one hand, Napolitano was a lightning rod for criticism. She sparked the ire of border hawks and immigrant advocates alike with her statement that the border is more secure than ever and her ramping up of deportations that went far beyond previous secretaries.
On the other hand, she was an Arizonan. She had built relationships with those who live and work along Arizona’s border with Mexico. She knew the lay of the land and understood the nuanced relationship Arizona has with its southern neighbor, which brings illegal drugs and undocumented people as well as millions of dollars in legal trade and tourism into the state.
On Oct. 18, President Barack Obama nominated Jeh Johnson, the former general counsel to the Department of Defense, to become the new secretary of DHS. And while Johnson has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, those on the forefront of border policy are already forming their opinions of the man and outlining their hopes for the new secretary.
The border mayor
Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino was a family friend of Napolitano’s. He said with her leaving, Arizonans are losing someone who truly understands the complexities of life along the border.
“She came to Nogales, she came back to Arizona, every time she got a chance. (That is) one of the most important things that we’re going to lose,” Garino said.
Being secretary of Homeland Security is not only about securing borders and the nation against terrorism, Garino said. It’s also about building and maintaining great relations with our trade partners to ensure the economy of the United States, Arizona and the border communities can flourish.
One of the main issues for border communities is staffing at the ports of entry. If there is one point Garino could stress to the new nominee, it would be the disparity between Border Patrol staffing and that of Customs and Border Protection. While the Border Patrol has grown exponentially in the past decade, the same cannot be said of Customs and Border Protection, which processes people and goods that come through the border legally and catches those who try to cross through the ports illegally.
Due to customs’ inadequate staffing, the Nogales port of entry has one of the longest wait times in the country. That threatens the booming produce industry in Nogales, the economy of the region and the culture of the twin cities of Nogales, as residents cannot move quickly from one side of the border to the other, Garino said.
“We’re very concerned with border security, but we’re more concerned about our own economy,” he said.
Garino said judging from Johnson’s background, it doesn’t appear the nominee is familiar with the problems and benefits of the border — and he invited Johnson and his team to Nogales for a tour of the border and the ports.
The border hawk
Zack Taylor, a former Border Patrol agent and vice president of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Of?cers, has built a reputation as one of Arizona’s toughest border hawks, testifying before Congress about the threats Arizona residents face from the other side of the line.
To Taylor, Napolitano was a colossal failure as DHS secretary. His hopes aren’t any higher for the next secretary because Johnson is an attorney and doesn’t have an on-the-ground law enforcement background.
Taylor puts no faith in political appointees who have a background in politics, as Johnson does, and believes that any pick that the president makes will be motivated primarily by politics, and not by a need to secure the border and protect Arizona residents.
“Nobody that comes out of this administration has been (good), why should this be any different? All he can do is build on her mistakes,” he said.
Taylor said if the president wanted to pick someone who could do the job right, he would have looked at Thad Allen, the former commandant of the Coast Guard who was widely praised for his performance directing the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
If Taylor had an opportunity to talk to Johnson and offer him some advice for the new job, he wouldn’t mince words.
“I’d tell him to go play golf with Obama and stay out of everybody’s way. Let (Border Patrol) do their job,” he said, repeating the often-made claim that the Napolitano administration instructed Border Patrol to let illegal immigrants go. “He’s not a law enforcement officer, and it’s a law enforcement job. He’s another political appointee.”
The immigrant advocate
Juanita Molina, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Border Action Network, is also hard-pressed to find words of praise for the Napolitano administration, but for much different reasons.
Molina said the militarization of the border and increased deportations, even of those who haven’t committed other crimes, during the Napolitano years rank high on her list of problems with the Napolitano administration.
Still, she said Arizona will lose someone who is familiar with the border.
“But knowing she was familiar with these (problems) I think adds a little bit of insult to injury,” she said.
She hopes Johnson, or whoever becomes the next DHS secretary, will be able to address the border in a way where the response is proportional to the problem. Molina said the response from the department toward immigrants has been politically motivated and has unfairly cracked down on economic migrants.
She repeated the sentiment of some border residents that the Border Patrol acts more like an occupying force than a partner in the community. She said she hopes the next DHS secretary pushes for more Border Patrol agents to live in the communities they patrol and engage with the community in a positive way.
“What I’m hoping will happen is there will be a different focus on how law enforcement is implemented in these areas… That they will revitalize instead of militarize (the local communities),” she said.
Jeh Johnson (pronounced Jay)
Born: Sept. 11, 1957
• Former general counsel, Department of Defense, 2009-2012
• Former partner, New York Law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Warton and Garrison
• Former general counsel, Department of the Air Force, 1998-2001
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING:
“(Johnson) has little experience with some of the issues that Ms. Napolitano faced, like border security and immigration. But he was a legal adviser to Mr. Obama during his first presidential campaign and has similar views to the president’s about the future of the United States’ counterterrorism operations.” — The New York Times
“(The nomination suggests) a shift from the department’s emphasis on immigration and border issues to a greater focus on security against possible attacks.” — The Washington Post
“Johnson was a top fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and was part of a prominent Democratic fundraising circle in New York.” — Politico
“From the moment I took office, Jeh was an absolutely critical member of my national security team, and he demonstrated again and again the qualities that will make him a strong secretary of Homeland Security.” — President Obama announcing the nomination
“Rather than selecting someone who knows the unique dynamics of our Southern border, President Obama has tapped one of his former New York fundraisers. We need someone who knows how to secure the border, not dial for dollars.” — Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a statement