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The Napolitano Files

The opportunistic immigration record of the new UC president.



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Against the odds, Rahmaputri is realizing her dream of attending UC Berkeley: She earned one of those coveted scholarships, and she is currently majoring in molecular and cell biology and hoping to attend medical school after graduation. Last summer, Rahmaputri and other undocumented students disrupted the meeting in which the UC Board of Regents voted to confirm Napolitano as the next UC president. "[The Regents] were making this huge decision while most students were not even at school," Rahmaputri noted. "We wanted people to know that this was happening."

As Rahmaputri was handcuffed and taken away after refusing to stop chanting anti-Napolitano slogans, she thought about the shackled immigrants she had seen at the ICE facility and about "how it felt to be powerless," she said. "I saw the UC Regents outside the door, and they were talking as if it was nothing. It felt like we were just a small nuisance for them."

Going After Officialdom 'Is Real Work'

To understand Napolitano's troubled legacy with immigration, it is helpful to begin in the late 1980s, when she was a young lawyer with the prominent Arizona firm Lewis & Roca. There, she was mentored by nationally prominent lawyer John Frank, who would facilitate crucial political connections for her. At the time, John Fife, the pastor of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church, was serving five years probation for violating federal immigration law. Fife had led a vast underground sanctuary movement for undocumented immigrants, many of whom were escaping US-funded paramilitary squads accused of widespread massacres in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Along with a team of other lawyers, Napolitano co-represented multiple churches, including Southside Presbyterian, which the feds suspected were providing safe haven to undocumented immigrants. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents had surreptitiously entered the churches wearing "body bugs" and recorded their services. In 1990, a federal appeals court ruled that these agents had violated the law: They could not send undercover agents on fishing expeditions. Today, Fife and others in the sanctuary movement are dismayed by Napolitano's subsequent political path. Fife said he considers Napolitano "a defector."

While Napolitano was busy litigating, things were heating up along California's border with Mexico. There, the Clinton administration had undertaken an aggressive campaign called "Operation Gatekeeper" that ramped up US border patrol presence in the area. The goal was to stop the growing flow of undocumented immigrants, which was expected to increase because of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Many analysts have since declared this operation a failure: Mexican immigrants were simply funneled to other routes into the country. Typically in search of economic opportunities and a better life for their families — and often fleeing violence and instability — they trekked across the treacherous desert of the Mexico-Arizona border. Hundreds drowned in canals, died of dehydration or heatstroke, or got shot by Arizona ranchers (and, to this day, more than one hundred die every year). Highly publicized cases in which Mexican drug lords kidnapped and killed would-be border crossers and demanded ransoms from their families shaped public perceptions. Many Arizona liberals, including a number of Mexican Americans, supported border crackdowns aimed at stopping drug cartel violence and abuse.

Racism had long colored politics in law-and-order Arizona, but it intensified during this period. Undocumented (and documented) Latinos were widely characterized as evil committers of crime, sappers of social services, and takers of American jobs. These perceptions lacked merit and context: In reality, undocumented immigrants are consistently among the least likely to commit crimes. In Arizona, they did widely utilize K-12 public schooling (a right established by a 1982 US Supreme Court case) as well as hospital emergency rooms — services many could not otherwise afford with low-wage, and often highly abusive, jobs that most Americans would not fill.

After serving on the team that litigated another high profile case — that of Anita Hill, who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment — Napolitano was appointed by President Clinton in 1993 as US Attorney for Arizona. One of her many responsibilities included spearheading a US Justice Department investigation into inhumane conditions in the "tent city" jail erected by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The popular, media-hungry sheriff had pitched hundreds of Army surplus tents and filled them with about 2,000 prisoners, most of whom were awaiting trial and had not been convicted of a crime. Among other cruel escapades, Arpaio had forced his inmates to work in "chain gangs" and required male prisoners to don pink boxer shorts. In a 1995 interview with the Associated Press, Napolitano seemed ambivalent about her pending probe of Arpaio. "We're doing this with the complete cooperation of the sheriff," she said. "We run a strict jail but a safe jail, and I haven't heard from anyone who thinks that this is a bad thing."

In years prior, one of Arpaio's inmates had died from dehydration and fever triggered by heroin withdrawal and another had suffocated in a restraint chair while his face was covered with a towel. Amnesty International and myriad human rights organizations had decried inhumane conditions in the jails and prevalent mistreatment of prisoners. Yet Napolitano's justice department merely required procedural changes: a ban on hog-tying inmates and using restraint chairs for punishment and limits on the use of pepper spray and stun guns. Napolitano filed suit against and announced a settlement with Arpaio on the same day her office issued its report. Napolitano then stood with Arpaio at a press conference, and, according to the Arizona Republic, "pooh-poohed her own lawsuit as 'lawyerly paperwork.'"

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