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The Napolitano Files

The opportunistic immigration record of the new UC president.



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Arpaio came away emboldened. "Let me say this for the people of Maricopa County," he proclaimed at the press conference. "The chain gangs stay. The tents stay. The pink underwear stays. All my programs stay. ... This has nothing to do with my policies and programs."

While Arpaio was not yet focused on pursuing undocumented immigrants, police officers were noticing — and presumably following — his example of intimidating and humiliating suspected law-breakers. On July 30, 1997, a Maricopa County cop in Chandler, Arizona approached a seven-year-old girl and her ten-year-old sister as they were walking home alone from school and demanded to see their birth certificates. After the terrified girls failed to do so, the officer warned them that they needed to carry their birth certificates with them at all times — otherwise they would be sent back to Mexico. According to testimony given in an Arizona Attorney General's Office investigation of the "Chandler Roundup," the girls subsequently began wearing their American birth certificates around their necks. They refused to go on errands alone and insisted on remaining indoors.

These girls were among hundreds of victims of this joint four-day operation by the Chandler police and the US Border Patrol. The roundup generated widespread reports of racial profiling and civil rights violations; even the Arizona Attorney General's Office review of radio dispatches supported legal residents' claims that they had been stopped for "looking Mexican." Yet the draconian tactics had their intended effect: Police arrested 432 suspected undocumented Mexicans — most of them poor migrant laborers from families composed of a mixture of legal and non-legal residents.

Antonio Bustamante, an Arizona immigrant-rights attorney, contends that Napolitano's decision not to pursue charges against Chandler Roundup leaders in her capacity as the US attorney for Arizona was politically motivated. "[Napolitano] knew she wanted to run for governor," he said. "She was about to run for attorney general. ... It was a political decision, and it was also because those cases are extremely difficult to investigate and litigate and ultimately win. I don't think she wanted that. Most prosecutors want to go with the easy work of busting drug dealers or other cases you can take to trial and get convictions. When you go after officialdom, that is real work. And it makes you very unpopular."

Napolitano's pragmatic political calculations paid off: The next year, in 1998, she ran successfully for attorney general of Arizona. While her focus was on consumer protection cases, her office did issue a "Declaration Condemning Racial Profiling." The declaration lacked teeth, however: It simply asked each department to make a policy and encouraged, but did not require, any data collection regarding arrests of people of color. The vast majority of police agencies in the state chose not to collect data.

On September 11, 2001 — about a year before Napolitano was elected governor of Arizona — undocumented immigrants were dealt a devastating blow in their struggle for legality. While all of the 9/11 hijackers had entered the United States with valid visas, the fact that terrorists were able to enter the country so easily raised troubling questions not only about America's visa program, but also about border security. As Americans mourned the loss of nearly 3,000 innocent civilians (including undocumented workers in the Twin Towers), then-Attorney General John Ashcroft determined that all police have "inherent authority" to arrest and detain deportable immigrants. This represented a major reversal from previous de facto policy that only federal agents could detain suspected undocumented immigrants. Officers like those involved in the Chandler Roundup were suddenly emboldened to "protect" national security by going after undocumented Mexicans.

Napolitano won her 2002 run for governor of Arizona by a margin of fewer than 12,000 votes, and Sheriff Arpaio's endorsement might well have made the difference. After Napolitano's Republican opponent accused her of ineptitude in a child molestation case that she had prosecuted, Arpaio crossed party lines to defend her. He taped a television advertisement declaring, "She was the number one prosecutor of child molesters in the nation!"

"Arpaio's ad is correct," Arizona Republic columnist Richard Ruelas wrote at the time. "Napolitano's record on prosecuting child molesters is stellar. It's her record on prosecuting inept public officials that's dismal."

Placating 'the Wrath of God'

Napolitano's actions on immigration during her Arizona governorship further reflected her sharp instincts for political survival. "She is talented at what political scientists have labeled triangulation," said Judy Greene, director of Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research organization focused on criminal justice and immigration reform. "The idea is that you make a move that angers a significant portion of your political base, so you make a counter-move to neutralize that. You do switchback maneuvers to keep yourself politically viable. She's a great triangulator."

During her first term as governor, Napolitano co-chaired the Western Governors' Association with Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. Together they crafted a policy framework on immigration. Their non-specific policy was loosely similar to the original McCain-Kennedy immigration bill that was proposed in 2005 and ultimately failed in 2007, particularly in its toughness on border enforcement and emphasis on creating economic advantage for the United States. However, the Napolitano-Huntsman framework opposed "blanket amnesty" and did not take a position on citizenship for Dreamers or residency for long-established families. The McCain-Kennedy plan went much further: It included the DREAM Act and would have given eight-year visas and a path to permanent residency to all current undocumented immigrants with no criminal record who agreed to pay back taxes and a $2,000 fine.

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