At Front Line of Immigration Debate

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

PHOENIX -- Two decades ago, lawyer Janet Napolitano represented a Tucson church battling an investigation into whether it smuggled illegal immigrants into the United States from Central America. In 1990, a federal appeals court ruled the Immigration and Naturalization Service could not send undercover informants into the Southside Presbyterian Church services on mere fishing expeditions to try to gather intelligence.

Over the next 20 years, Napolitano served as U.S. attorney for Arizona, as the state's attorney general and, since 2002, as governor. Now Napolitano's old clients view her as a defector, in the words of John Fife, the former pastor of Southside Presbyterian, who led what was called the sanctuary movement for illegal immigrants.

Among the nation's top Democrats, Napolitano has developed some of the toughest policies against illegal immigration. She was one of the first major politicians to call for deployment of the National Guard along the border and declared a state of emergency in her state's counties nearest Mexico. She has aggressively pursued smugglers in Arizona. In February, she joined with Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) to outline a plan for immigration reform that called for more funding for border security, more visas for foreign workers and no blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Her Republican critics here, however, say she has not gone nearly far enough and has routinely blocked legislative efforts against illegal immigration.

Napolitano's transformation from crusading lawyer to a tough-minded governor is reflective of the political reality of Arizona, which, more than any other state, has become the battleground for what the nation should do about illegal immigration. And her too-tough for some, not-tough-enough for others stance reflects the political difficulties the issue presents here.

In Arizona's congressional delegation, conservative Republican J.D. Hayworth of Scottsdale wants to place troops on the Mexican border, while liberal Democrat Raul M. Grijalva of Tucson favors granting citizenship to many illegal immigrants. In Maricopa County around Phoenix, the sheriff has begun arresting suspected illegal immigrants on smuggling charges, while to the south in Pima County, the school superintendent is defying a state order to reveal how many children of illegal immigrants are in the school district.

"We've got all kinds here," said Robin Hoover, head of Humane Borders, a Tucson-based interfaith organization devoted to stopping deaths among illegal immigrants as they cross the desert. "We've got people who all say they want to save America -- and they're fighting like cats and dogs."

At the center of the debate is Napolitano, a native New Yorker raised in Albuquerque, who is running for reelection. Despite being a Democrat in a state where the legislature is controlled by Republicans, she boasts an approval rating of 60 percent. Napolitano was on Sen. John F. Kerry's list of possible running mates in 2004, and, in 2005, Time magazine named her one of the nation's five best governors.

"My challenge is to devise a policy that makes Arizonans confident that some things are being done," Napolitano said, "without going overboard and just throwing money at the problem to make it look like I'm 'tough,' whatever that means."

Despite sharing a 350-mile-long border with Mexico, Arizona was not always a frontline state in the immigration debate. For decades, California and Texas bore the brunt of illegal immigration through San Diego and El Paso. In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration built walls and launched enforcement efforts around both cities, and the illegal flow shifted to Arizona's deserts. Federal authorities promised a similar enforcement program for Arizona, Napolitano said, but it never happened.

"The thing was allowed to fester and fester and fester," Napolitano said. "Not only did the traffic move to Arizona, but it was left untended by the feds for so long, you had this growing public frustration and perception that control of the border in Arizona had been lost."

Napolitano said her views on immigration began to change during her tenure as U.S. attorney in the mid-1990s with the crush of immigrant smuggling cases.

Ruth Ann Myers, who led the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Arizona from the days when Napolitano was battling her agency in court through the beginning of Napolitano's tenure as U.S. attorney, recalled Napolitano's transformation. "As U.S. attorney," Myers said, "she was very enforcement-minded."

In recent years, the Border Patrol estimated that more than 6,650 people were attempting to cross into Arizona from Mexico every day and an estimated 4,000 were succeeding. The state's hospitals were routinely handing out tens of millions of dollars in free medical care to ailing illegal immigrants, according to state data, and the Medicaid bill ballooned from $200 million in 2001 to $1.2 billion in 2003, at least partly because of illegal immigration.

While toughening her stance on the border, Napolitano has also opposed what she terms "inhumane" restrictions on illegal immigrants. In 2004, Arizonans passed Proposition 200, which directed the state to stop all non-federally mandated assistance to illegal immigrants. Since then, Arizona's attorney general, with Napolitano's support, has ruled that the law only pertains to discretionary state programs and not to federally funded entitlements such as food stamps and subsidized school lunches. The proposition's backers have sued the state to demand what they call full implementation. Meanwhile, on Thursday, the legislature voted to let voters decide whether to deny more state services, such as state-funded child care, to illegal immigrants, and whether to make English the state's official language. Napolitano opposes both measures.

"This governor has dragged her feet and tried to stop all improvement and changes with respect to illegal immigration problems within the state," charged Randy Pullen, a Republican activist who was among those suing Napolitano. "She talks a great story, but she believes in open borders. Every time we try to get something done, she vetoes it."

These days, Napolitano finds herself back in the position of a gadfly to the feds -- the same feds she sued 20 years ago and then led, as U.S. attorney, in the 1990s. Napolitano says she was forced to take a tougher stance on immigration because she, like many state politicians in the West, believes "our federal immigration policy is broken." Still, she blasted the idea of simply increasing border security without a comprehensive solution that involves Mexico and new regulations on visas and employers.

"We're not going to seal the border; we can't," she said, referring to vast stretches of forbidding desert. "When I hear congressional and media people saying, 'Shut the border,' I think to myself, 'They've never seen the border.' You can't possibly have been to the Arizona-Mexico border and believe that is possible."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company