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However, Napolitano proved to be not very good at preventing Sheriff Arpaio from continuing his abusive practices — an oversight that arguably became her most enduring legacy with Arizona's immigrant community. After Napolitano vetoed bills that would have turned all cops into immigration officers, she personally wrote to then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff in July 2005. She asked that selected cops be trained to enforce immigration law under a federal statute called 287(g) that, until that time, was rarely invoked. In her letter, she championed the notion of using traffic stops to facilitate deportation: "Local law enforcement officers often come into contact with large numbers of UDAs [undocumented aliens] during routine traffic or other law enforcement activities."
Although she knew from first-hand experience about the horrific conditions in Arpaio's tent city jail — at this point Arpaio was fighting lawsuits over more deaths and abuses under his watch — she nevertheless suggested that undocumented immigrants be detained at his facility. "Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has agreed to assist in providing the bed space needed to house individuals detained by this squad," she wrote to Chertoff.
Arpaio, of course, was elated. He told the Arizona Republic that he would gladly create jail space for Napolitano's pilot program. "If I have to set up tents from here to Mexico, I'll do it!" he proclaimed. In 2007, Arpaio got his wish: ICE trained 160 Maricopa County officers, and, for the first time, gave them the power to both arrest undocumented immigrants on the street and issue detainers in jail. There were only two hundred other local officers deputized across the nation — making Maricopa County's 287(g) program the largest by far.
The abuses that ensued included numerous street and workplace raids reminiscent of the 1997 Chandler Roundup, rampant reports of racial profiling, and continued humiliation of prisoners: Temperatures inside the tent city topped 110 degrees and Arpaio intentionally fed prisoners outdated food as a form of punishment. Occasionally, Napolitano criticized Arpaio, but she never acted to stop him, even as others — including the mayor of Phoenix, the mayor of Tucson, and the attorney general — were lambasting his actions. But L'Ecuyer maintains that Napolitano's power over Arpaio was very limited. "You almost have to have lived in Arizona to understand the phenomenon of Joe Arpaio. He is unique. He does not take advice really from anyone," L'Ecuyer said. "The notion that the governor could somehow rein in a sheriff in any county in Arizona reflects a lack of understanding of how government is structured here."
Shortly before she left the governorship, Napolitano took a cautious step: She denied state funding to Arpaio for undocumented immigrant roundups and instead ordered that the money be used to pursue serious felons. Shortly thereafter, Napolitano resigned her governorship to take over for Chertoff at DHS. She could have immediately pulled Maricopa County's 287(g) powers. But she did not. Instead, she did so only after the US Justice Department published a damning 2011 report on unlawful violations in Arpaio's jails including frequent racial slurs, punishment for prisoners who failed to speak English, and "a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos."
Mass Deportations to 'Protect' the Homeland
During the run-up to the 2008 election, President Obama sealed many Latino votes when he spoke passionately and specifically about the devastating impact of deportations: "When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel — when all of this is happening, the system isn't working, and we need to change it."
Frank Sharry, director of the national immigrant rights advocacy organization America's Voice, was heavily involved in the failed 2001-2007 efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform. He knew that hard compromises would likely be necessary if and when this urgent initiative finally succeeded. And he was one of many advocates in Washington, DC who supported Obama's nomination of Napolitano as DHS secretary over the objections of Arizona activists. "Many of us in Washington thought, 'You know, she's a border state governor who knows how to talk about border security in the same breath as she talks about comprehensive immigration reform.' So people like me were hopeful," he recalled. "We thought she was going to bring credibility on enforcement, and a real commitment to reform."
Ultimately, Sharry and the vast majority of immigrants' rights advocates concluded they had been duped. During Obama's first term, Napolitano's DHS deported a record 1.6 million people — an average of 32,886 per month. By comparison, President George W. Bush deported about 20,964 per month and Clinton deported 9,059 per month.
"If you believe in fairness for undocumented immigrants, you have to push for it," an Obama administration official told me. "Napolitano's job was to push Obama, and instead the opposite happened. I can't think of one instance at DHS in which she really went to bat for undocumented immigrants. Her policies were unnecessarily mean."