It Doesn't Matter Who Replaces Janet Napolitano

Flickr/U.S. Army/Sgt. Jim Greenhill

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano

Republicans probably weren’t crying in their coffee this morning after Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced she would resign her post to take over as president of the University of California system. Throughout her tenure—during which the Obama administration oversaw a record number of deportations but also prioritized criminal deportation and offered the children of undocumented immigrants “deferred action”—Republicans assailed the secretary for what they say is the department's failure to enforce current immigration law.

This has been a flashpoint in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform: Distrustful of the administration's commitment to securing the border, Republican lawmakers have pushed for reform to include triggers that make the legalization of the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants contingent on various border-security metrics. Democrats thwarted attempts by their GOP colleagues to include such hardline benchmarks in the Gang of Eight bill that passed the chamber in late June; the bill passed by the Senate merely requires that plans for securing the border be "substantially complete" or "substantially underway" in order for legalization to move forward. The Republican-controlled House has adopted a piecemeal approach to overhauling the system; the Judiciary committee passed a standalone enforcement bill last month, but there is currently no legislative proposal that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

The question is whether there is someone the president could name who could bring more enforcement credibility and thus make Republicans more likely to accept a path to citizenship for the undocumented without harsh border-security provisions that many say are intended to kill reform entirely. At the beginning of Obama’s first term, political sources put forth New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who oversees the city’s counterterrorism efforts, as a possible pick for the post. Would appointing someone like Kelly make Republicans more likely to cooperate with the administration on immigration?

Probably not. For one thing, Napolitano’s tenure as governor of border state Arizona hardly did anything to convince Republicans she was serious about enforcement. But the fact that deporting nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants a year counts as being border-security dove highlights the bigger problem with Democrats’ strategy on immigration. Since the last major push for reform in 2007, the plan to get Republicans on board has been to couple increased enforcement with an overhaul of the legal reforms. But when the time came to reform the system, Republicans said the border needed to be secured before legal reform could take place. Playing the long game, President Obama ramped up enforcement efforts and threw money behind the department in his first terms. As a result, net migration to the United States has been reduced to zero, and the government now spends more on immigration enforcement than all other federal law-enforcement efforts combined. Indeed, the government has met most of the enforcement benchmarks proposed in the 2007 bill. The idea was that, when the time came, the administration could make the case to Republicans that the border was substantially secure and that legalization could move forward. 

But instead, Republicans moved the goal posts. While their colleagues in the Senate were ultimately overruled, the House GOP has sought to strip DHS of discretion in going after those who violate immigration law—currently, the department prioritizes criminals and drug-dealers rather than, for instance, those who have overstayed a visa—make undocumented presence in the country a federal crime (rather than a misdemeanor offense); and give states wide latitude in imposing their own penalties on immigrants. Without laying out what exactly would count as "securing the border," the House has simply moved forward with more enforcement—a path to citizenship isn't even part of the picture. The problem, as I have written, is that totally sealing the borders is essentially impossible—so long as we've failed to achieve a Soviet-style blockage, Republicans can claim we're still not there yet. "We need to secure the border" is a fail-safe way of avoiding legal reform.

In the end, it hardly matters who Obama appoints as secretary of Homeland Security. He could install Arizona governor and immigration hawk Jan Brewer herself and Republicans would still claim the government is going soft on border security.

Follow the author on Twitter @gabrielarana.