Napolitano, Obama's Homeland Security Nominee, Vows to Prosecute Employers of Illegal Immigrants

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

Janet Napolitano, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security, vowed yesterday at her Senate confirmation hearing to shift the focus of U.S. immigration enforcement from illegal workers to the prosecution of employers who hire those workers, signaling a clear break with the outgoing Bush administration.

In remarks and written answers to senators, the two-term Arizona governor offered few details but said she would lead a broad reexamination of the department's security policies in the coming year. Among other things, she said she would revisit a controversial and costly plan to tighten national standards for driver's licenses, would devote more resources to rail and maritime security, and may push back a 2012 deadline to screen all U.S.-bound containers at foreign ports.

"The department has come a long way, but there is a ways to go," Napolitano, 51, told members of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. ". . . Changes need to be made."

Napolitano drew a warm, bipartisan welcome in a workmanlike two-hour appearance, though only nine senators -- about half the panel's members -- showed up to ask questions, just two of them Republicans. Committee officials said they expect Napolitano to be confirmed by the full Senate as soon as Obama is sworn in Tuesday.

Still, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) warned that the honeymoon will be brief for Napolitano, the first Democrat to take over the sprawling, 200,000-worker department. The agency is considered one of the government's most troubled bureaucracies, with a portfolio spanning from terrorism to hurricane response to border control.

"You're taking on one of the biggest and maybe one of the most difficult jobs in our country in terms of government," McCaskill said. "It's all going to be warm and fuzzy today, and that's probably going to be it."

In an 83-page policy questionnaire, Napolitano said she would consider "a broad range of changes" to Bush immigration policies, whose focus on raids, criminal prosecutions and expedited deportation of immigrants has been criticized by immigrant advocates and civil liberties groups as unduly harsh.

"I expect to increase the focus on ensuring that employers of unlawful workers are prosecuted," she said.

Napolitano said the federal government has not done enough to secure rail systems and small boats. She said it also needs to bolster cybersecurity and work with the private sector to protect critical infrastructure, such as chemical plants and academic biological research facilities.

Napolitano vowed to "create a unified vision" for the department, improve its personnel, and strengthen cooperation with state and local governments.

"The federal government cannot do the homeland-security function alone," she said.

She said she would work with the nation's governors to rein back Real ID, the driver's license requirements designed to improve the security of identification documents, "not out of a philosophical objection . . . but because it's a huge fiscal burden."

"With the condition of the states fiscally, I don't think we can reasonably anticipate that they have money available now to put into an enhanced driver's license program," she said.

Napolitano, who served as U.S. attorney for Arizona and state attorney general, rebutted criticism that her résumé lacks counterterrorism credentials. As U.S. attorney, she said, she gained direct experience when her office helped investigate the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City and prosecuted a militia group in a separate bombing plot.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company