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Walking the Talk


As governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano was one of the most outspoken critics of federal border security policies. Her official bio describes her as "a national voice in calling upon the federal government to accept their responsibility for our nation's borders." No fan of the fence now being erected along vast stretches of the southwest border (nearly 600 miles so far), Napolitano told an audience at the National Press Club in 2007, "You show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder."

"Unlike many in Washington, I have actually walked, flown by helicopter and even ridden a horse over much of [the border]. . . . I have been in the drug tunnels, where cocaine and marijuana by the ton come into our country, and the sewers where children, who are crossing the border, sleep at night. I have seen the campsites strewn with abandoned clothing, human waste and refuse," she said.

As governor, she rejected proposals that would give state and local police the power to enforce federal immigration law, but she's not exactly soft on illegal immigration either. Before becoming governor, she supervised the prosecution of more than 6,000 immigration felonies and dozens of large-scale trafficking and money-laundering rings as a U.S. attorney for Arizona and later as the state's first female attorney general.

She was also the first border state governor to declare a state emergency in 2006 when immigrants were crossing the Arizona border from Mexico at a rate of 4,000 a day. She called out the National Guard and then demanded that Washington pay for it.

For several years, Napolitano submitted invoices to Washington for reimbursement of several hundred million dollars for what she terms a de facto tax on Arizona citizens for failed federal policies-the costs of deploying the Guard and incarcerating and prosecuting illegal immigrants charged with crimes in Arizona.

"The federal government refuses to foot the bill, or to deal in any effective way with the scope of this issue," she said.

As secretary of Homeland Security, Napolitano will have a shot at dealing effectively with an issue that has plagued Republican and Democratic administrations for decades. But no matter how nuanced her understanding of border security and illegal immigration, she could have a hard time turning that into effective policy.

"I don't think you can draw any conclusions about what she might do at the federal level based on what she's done as a governor," says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing rank-and-file Border Patrol agents. The inherent tension between security and commerce at the border makes for "an unenviable job," he says. Among the issues Napolitano will have to contend with is the growing lawlessness in Mexico and its spillover effects in the United States. Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Clinton administration and now head of BR McCaffrey Associates LLC, a consulting firm based in Arlington, Va., recently spent time in Mexico and detailed his findings in a report to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he is an adjunct professor of international affairs.

"The incoming Obama administration must immediately focus on the dangerous and worsening problems in Mexico, which fundamentally threaten U.S. national security. Before the next eight years are past, the violent, warring collection of criminal drug cartels could overwhelm the institutions of the state and establish de facto control over broad regions of northern Mexico," McCaffrey wrote in his December 2008 report.

"A failure by the Mexican political system to curtail lawlessness and violence could result in a surge of millions of refugees crossing the U.S. border to escape the domestic misery of violence, failed economic policy, poverty, hunger, joblessness, and the mindless cruelty and injustice of a criminal state," he said. Border security between Mexico and the United States cuts both ways, McCaffrey noted. Ninety percent of the weapons that are used by the drug cartels are smuggled from the United States into Mexico, which has strict gun laws. "They are frequently purchased from licensed U.S. gun dealers in Texas, Arizona and California. AK-47 assault rifles are literally bought a hundred at a time and illegally brought into Mexico. Mexican authorities routinely seize boxes of unopened automatic military weapons. The confiscation rates by Mexican law enforcement of hand grenades, [rocket-propelled grenades], and AK-47s are at the level of wartime battlefield seizures," he wrote.

McCaffrey added: "It is hard to understand the seeming indifference and incompetence of U.S. authorities at state and federal levels to such callous disregard for a national security threat to a neighboring democratic state. We would consider it an act of war from a sanctuary state if we were the victim."

According to Bonner, there were 1,076 assaults on Border Patrol agents in 2008, mainly from smugglers moving drugs and people into the United States. Mexican drug cartels increasingly try to infiltrate the Border Patrol, he says, something he worries about in the context of the force's rapid expansion in recent years. "The new administration is clearly going to look at the whole [Secure Border Initiative] program," says John Mayer, a vice president at the McLean, Va.-based Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm.

"There are a lot of ways you can do border security," he says. "You can build fences, hire more agents, use [unmanned aerial vehicles] and have cameras posted everyplace. None of these by themselves is the right answer, yet if they're integrated into a program that you balance with risk analytics, I think you can come up with a pretty sound border protection program that will not only work but be efficient in terms of the allocation of resources.

"There's no silver bullet in terms of how you do border protection," Mayer adds.


Katherine is deputy editor of Government Executive Media Group, a division of Atlantic Media, where she oversees editorial coverage for and Government Executive magazine. She previously was executive editor of Nextgov.

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