WASHINGTON — Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to run the Department of Homeland Security, pledged Thursday to get tougher with employers who hire illegal workers.
“You have to deal with illegal immigration from the demand side as well as the supply side,” she told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is expected to send her nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote early next week.
“You have deal with what is drawing people across the border, and that is a job,” said Napolitano, who has served as a federal prosecutor and Arizona’s attorney general.
Napolitano didn’t elaborate on her plans for dealing with employers who hire illegal workers. Some critics of immigration reform complain that law enforcement has been lax in prosecuting those employers.
Napolitano’s comments dealt with aspects of a larger immigration strategy that would include fences along the southern border in some places, technology to track human movement and revisiting the controversial Real ID program, which would enhance authentication procedures for state drivers’ licenses.
Napolitano also said improving disaster response, enhancing transportation security and tracking emerging terrorist threats overseas and at home would be among her top priorities.
If confirmed, she would be the nation’s third homeland security secretary, a Cabinet-level position created after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Napolitano could face an early challenge.
President George W. Bush was in office less than eight months before the 2001 terrorist attacks. Shortly after Clinton took office in 2003, terrorists bombed the World Trade Center.
Napolitano’s hearing was cordial, with committee members pledging to back her nomination.
She was flanked by Arizona’s two Republican senators, Jon Kyl and John McCain, who praised her experience, competence and stamina for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and beating cancer.
“She will bring a wealth of experience to the department,” Kyl said.
Napolitano was peppered with questions on immigration and border security, and she stressed the kind of practical approach that has won her praise from fellow governors and many national lawmakers.
She said she would meet with the nation’s governors and look for ways to improve the concept behind the Real ID program and lighten the burden it imposes on states. She has opposed the program out of concerns it would cost Arizona too much.
“We need to rethink, revisit, and re-consult here and then come back to this committee if necessary,” she said.
Southern border fences, she said, could be valuable around urban areas. But she said a barrier spanning the entire southern border would be impractical and ineffective in remote regions where technology would work better.
Napolitano was not questioned about the politically charged issue of how to handle raids conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. President-elect Barack Obama has been highly critical of the raids.
But after a recent meeting with Napolitano, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Napolitano “will be looking very closely at what ICE has done.”
It’s not clear whether Congress will take up any major immigration reforms soon. If it does, Napolitano is sure to play a central role. The debate fizzled out last year without any resolution, and lawmakers now have a crashing economy to worry about.
Other major issues Napolitano may face include:
• Weapons of mass destruction. A bipartisan commission created by Congress recently issued a chilling report predicting an attack using a weapon of mass destruction is “more likely than not” in the next five years, unless the international community acts.
• Ground transportation and port security. Aviation has received most of the federal government’s attention, but huge security gaps remain in other modes.
“Lets go where the gaps are,” Napolitano said.
• Communication breakdowns. Local and national disaster response teams often can’t communicate because they’re still using old, incompatible radios.
• A daunting bureaucracy with a mixed record. The massive 22-agency Homeland Security Department was hastily created in the wake of the 2001 attacks to better coordinate national responses to threats and disasters.
The Coast Guard was lauded for its daring helicopter rescues during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency was lambasted for its slow response to Katrina.
“The Department of Homeland Security represent perhaps the most serious management challenge in government today,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, a member of the homeland security committee.
ON THE WEB
Homeland Security Department: www.dhs.gov
Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee: hsgac.senate.gov