Redefining homeland security

President Obama taps Janet Napolitano ’79 for Cabinet post

Redefining homeland security
Janet Napolitano Testifies At Senate Confirmation Hearing / Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On a balmy evening last May, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano returned to the Mission campus to offer an address on “Immigration: Where Do We Go From Here?” The hall was filled to capacity, with audience members commenting on how it wasn’t difficult to see why the National Governors Association had elected her chair of the organization. Eric Hanson, the Patrick A. Donohoe, S.J., Professor of Political Science, said his students’ responses the next day were nearly uniform.

“They all basically asked: Why isn’t that woman in Washington?” he said.

Hanson’s students proved prescient. When President Barack Obama took office Jan. 20, he brought Napolitano with him as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Napolitano, 51, will lead a department with more than 20 offices and agencies with multiple missions, including safeguarding the United States from terrorists, heading the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and directing immigration enforcement.

A new direction

Napolitano’s selection was lauded as a sign Obama’s administration might fundamentally change the tone of the nation’s controversial approach to domestic security post-9/11.

“I think she will get us back to a balance that recognizes this country’s commitment is to individual freedom,” said Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63, who served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton for three years beginning in 1994 and in February became director of the Central Intelligence Agency. “I know her, and I know she recognizes our freedoms are the keys to our security and not the other way around.”

Of Napolitano’s grounding in ethics, Panetta assessed, “She reflects what I would call the Santa Clara value system: fundamental beliefs in terms of right and wrong, good common sense, and basic compassion.”

Janet Flammang, Chair of SCU’s political science department, taught Napolitano as a political science major. Flammang said that as the two-term governor of a state that borders Mexico, Napolitano brings valuable understanding as the complexities of the immigration discussion.

“When she spoke at SCU, she presented the issue from the perspective of security and law enforcement,” Flammang said. “But she also talked about the impact on families. She thinks along the continuum.”

During Napolitano’s talk in May, which was co-sponsored by SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Commonwealth Club/Silicon Valley, she called immigration policy an “inherently federal function” that has fallen to the states due to Washington’s refusal to confront the topic in a bipartisan fashion.

Napolitano acknowledged the wide array of opinions on border protection. At one end, she said, are those who believe in totally open borders. At the other are those she calls “the wall people,” who believe the problem can be solved by building a fence at the border. “My response to them is, ‘Show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder,’” she said.

Both positions are wrong, Napolitano argued. Immigration, she said, involves both basic rights of citizenship and the dominion of a nation. She called for comprehensive reform at the federal level, including improving the visa system by allowing more people into the country legally; dealing with the demand side of the equation, including employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants; and dealing with the root causes of immigration, such as poverty and unemployment south of the U.S. border.

Breaking glass ceilings

Napolitano was first introduced to Santa Clara by her father, Leonard Napolitano ’51, who went on to become the dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. While studying at SCU, Janet Napolitano was granted a prestigious Truman Scholarship for her work in public service. She became Santa Clara’s first female valedictorian. In 2003 she delivered the undergraduate commencement address. She also serves on SCU’s Board of Regents.

Napolitano studied law at the University of Virginia. She was in the national spotlight in 1991, serving as a counselor to Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. In 1993, she was named a U.S. attorney by President Bill Clinton, and, in 1998, Napolitano was the first woman elected state attorney general in Arizona.

Along with tackling increased professional responsibilities, she took on whitewater rafting in the Grand Canyon, trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro, and cycling in Italy. At age 42, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy in summer 2000—and three weeks later spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

When Napolitano was first elected governor of Arizona in 2002, fewer than 12,000 votes separated her from her Republican opponent. But her 2006 re-election was a landslide, as she received 63 percent of the vote.

One of her priorities as governor was health care. She headed a successful initiative to increase the number of nurses in the state by 50 percent and worked vigilantly on a flagship program to reduce prescription-drug costs for senior citizens in Arizona.

Napolitano was easily confirmed by the Senate on Jan. 20 and is now the first woman and the first Democrat to serve in the role of Homeland Security chief. She will oversee a sprawling and oft-troubled federal department that was formed in 2003 and includes nearly 200,000 employees.

During her January confirmation hearing, Napolitano told a congressional panel that fixing U.S. immigration policy would be a priority.

“I have walked, flown over, and ridden horseback along our southwest border,” she said. “I appreciate its vastness, as well as the grave consequences of our broken system.”

SCU’s Eric Hanson, for one, sees his former student as being uniquely suited to the task before her.

“She has to relate to everyone from a border patrolman to strategic thinkers in D.C.,” Hanson says. “The student I knew was not only brilliant but also uncommonly able to work with people across a broad spectrum.”

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