Since Janet Napolitano became the president of the University of California on September 30, her immigration record as governor of Arizona and as secretary of President Obama's Department of Homeland Security has been a source of considerable controversy. Throughout Napolitano's recent "listening and learning" tours of UC campuses, undocumented students and their allies have mounted protests at every opportunity.
In response, Napolitano has created a $5 million fund to support undocumented students. She has reiterated her long-standing support for comprehensive immigration reform and for the DREAM Act, which would give "Dreamers" — undocumented young people who grew up in the United States — a path to legal residency and citizenship. She even took the surprising step of supporting California's Trust Act, which limits the state's cooperation with Secure Communities, a federal immigration program she once spearheaded. Yet the protests have continued unabated. Her conciliatory acts could not treat a gaping wound: A record number of deportations by the Department of Homeland Security under her leadership had yielded traumatic personal consequences for countless UC students.
Former Arizona state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez, a progressive politician who once ran against Napolitano for governor of Arizona and has followed her career since the early days, holds a view of her that is common among immigrant-rights advocates. "Janet Napolitano would only throw as many Mexicans under the bus as she had to," he said. "Unfortunately, in the context of the Obama administration, that happened to be millions. Now she's in California, so she's welcoming Mexicans into the bus. She's an incredibly capable woman. She's extraordinarily bright. She's a great administrator. But unfortunately, when it comes to the undocumented, she has no guiding principle."
Napolitano's move to California is the culmination of an unlikely political trajectory: From her early career as an ambitious young attorney with a controversial caseload, she has migrated from one of the reddest states, via Washington, DC, to one of the bluest — and into a deeply progressive academic environment in which undocumented students vigorously advocate for their rights.
What emerges from a closer look at her record is not the story of a malicious, anti-immigrant crusader. Nor is it the story of a liberal-at-heart who was forced to implement draconian policy. Rather, what emerges is a story of tactical compromise, strategic alliances with sometimes unsavory partners, and the robust protection of one's own career viability. Napolitano's history of angling for her political future rather than doing what she knows is right provides insight into how she might act as UC president — and raises questions about why the UC Board of Regents saw her political acumen as an ideal skillset for a leader of academia.
How It Feels to Be 'Powerless'
Napolitano declined to be interviewed for this article, and also declined to respond by email to a long list of detailed questions about allegations made by her critics. UC spokesperson Steve Montiel helped me contact Napolitano's past colleagues and supporters, but explained, "As you might imagine, [Janet Napolitano] is focusing on the University of California, not on immigration policies and practices."
Napolitano's immigration policies and practices have, however, shaped and colored the lives of many UC students. About nine hundred current UC students are undocumented. Siti Rahmaputri, who goes by the nickname Putri, is one of them.
Rahmaputri came with her family to the United States from Indonesia in 2005, when she was eleven years old. Like most undocumented immigrants, her family was seeking economic opportunities and a better future, particularly for their only child. She went to middle school in San Francisco and quickly came to consider herself as American as the other students. In 2006, her mother took her to a May Day rally where activists were advocating for the DREAM Act. The twelve-year-old reveled in the rally's colorful festivities, but her mother struck a serious tone: "Pay attention to what they are saying," she instructed.
Five years later, seventeen-year-old Rahmaputri was filling out college applications when she started feeling "devastated and embarrassed" upon learning how being an undocumented immigrant could affect her life, she said. With no social security number, she would not qualify for most forms of financial aid. She would not be able to work in any job that required a work eligibility check. She would not be able to get a driver's license. (California has since joined ten other states in passing legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses.) She would need to avoid the police, because, under policies that Napolitano oversaw, police were empowered to act as immigration enforcers. Rahmaputri realized that the future she had imagined was not attainable. She would need to dramatically scale back her ambitions.
Scholars have documented the devastating social and psychological consequences of the situation in which Rahmaputri found herself. Roberto G. Gonzales, an assistant professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, spent ten years interviewing Dreamers about transitioning into adulthood — or, as Gonzales puts it, "transitioning into illegality." The young people who Gonzales interviewed almost universally described experiencing emotional and physical manifestations of stress: ulcers, chronic headaches, trouble sleeping, eating problems, thoughts of suicide, and suicide attempts. Gonzales noted that while activist campaigns focusing on the merit and innocence of Dreamers have proven effective in many instances, the public often misses a crucial point. "Left out of that discussion," he said, "is the real-life effects of living undocumented in this country or growing up with a parent who is without legal status."