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Napolitano Says Fixing Immigration System a Priority

January 15, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

Janet Napolitano, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for homeland security secretary, told a congressional panel this morning that fixing the “broken” U.S. immigration system would be a priority.

As governor of Arizona, a border state, Napolitano called for the National Guard to help secure the Mexican border and she billed the federal government for state services used by illegal immigrants.

“I have walked, flown over, and ridden horseback along our southwest border,” Napolitano told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s hearing on her nomination. “I appreciate its vastness, as well as the grave consequences of our broken system,” she said.

Napolitano, 51, would be integral in pushing legislation Obama supports to boost enforcement as well as opportunities for foreign workers.

President George W. Bush, a Republican, failed to overcome opposition in his own party to gain support for a so-called guest-worker program similar to what Obama and Napolitano favor. Many Republicans have said the government must first improve enforcement.

Napolitano said she would immediately begin working with the Justice Department and U.S. attorneys around the country to ensure employers who hire illegal aliens are sanctioned. “You have to target appropriately,” she said in response to a question from Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri.

She said she also would work with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to see whether “there is or can be a continuing role” for the National Guard in augmenting U.S. border patrol forces.

Bipartisan Support

Napolitano has bipartisan support. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who leads the panel, said as the hearing ended, “I’d be very proud to support your nomination on the floor.” Susan Collins of Maine, the committee’s ranking Republican, said she hoped the panel would have “a very long and productive” relationship with Napolitano.

Leslie Phillips, a Lieberman spokesman, said Napolitano’s nomination is likely to be sent to the Senate Jan. 20 for confirmation.

If confirmed, Napolitano will be in charge of a five-year- old department with 218,000 employees whose duties include airport and presidential security, aid for storm victims and immigration control.

The difficulties in managing such a large organization, which was created from 22 agencies, became evident in the department’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, bungled repairs on Coast Guard cutters, and a malfunctioning sensor system to catch illegal immigrants at U.S. borders.

Front-Line Experience

The governor has “front-line experience on some of the challenges facing her department, like illegal immigration and border security,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman cautioned the incoming Obama administration against removing the much-criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency from the department to make it a separate, Cabinet-level organization.

“Some have proposed removing FEMA from DHS and making it a free-standing agency,” he said. “I will do all I can to stop such disintegration.”

Advocates of taking FEMA out of DHS have said it would free the agency from unnecessary bureaucracy so it can better respond to disasters. FEMA’s reputation still hasn’t recovered from its slow response to Katrina in 2005.

Improving Communications

Napolitano, responding to questions, said the criticism of FEMA has been “strong and legitimate.”

She said she will seek ways to better share information with state and local emergency-response officials. She said she would focus on improving first responders’ ability to communicate by bringing in people who are “technologically savvy” to ensure that the best, most up-to-date equipment is available.

State and local officials have complained that the federal government is too reluctant to pass along tips, which sometimes originate from classified information.

Protecting the government’s computer networks and speeding responses to disasters are other priorities, Napolitano said.

Napolitano served as U.S. attorney in Arizona from 1994 to 1998 and became the state’s first female attorney general in 1998. She was elected governor in 2002 and re-elected in 2006.

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