Connect the dots

From border security to disaster preparedness, Janet Napolitano ’79 has one immense portfolio.

From border security to disaster preparedness to airport screening, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano ’79 has one immense portfolio. She’s also the point person on immigration. How to put those together?

Photo: Joanne Lee
Here is one of the moments that Janet Napolitano thinks about at night. It is a late afternoon in October, and the secretary of homeland security is at a student and faculty Q&A on the Mission campus.

In a few hours, she’ll deliver a keynote speech kicking off the University’s Grand Reunion. The first person at the microphone is Xiaojing Dong, an assistant professor of marketing at the Leavey School of Business.

“I applied for permanent residency in this country three years ago,” Dong says. “I have been here ten years as a student and worker. I have paid taxes here for ten years.”

Her speech halts and her hands tremble. She begins to cry.

“I don’t know what’s happening. I have a family here,” she says. “If I don’t find out about my residency in time, I’ll have to go back to China. I write the immigration offices, I call them. I am a legal immigrant. I’m doing everything I can, but no one is helping. I don’t know what is happening.”

Separated from the microphone by 15 feet and a podium, Napolitano speaks to the larger audience. “This goes to the need for immigration reform,” Napolitano says. “There is a backlog. The denial of talent is astounding. This is a country … ”

Napolitano breaks off. Policy discussions don’t have any currency here. She knows that Dong wants action, not speeches. She steps away from the podium. “Do you have your information?” Napolitano asks her. “Do you have something I can bring back with me and look into it?”

Dong walks toward her, hands Napolitano the permanent residency papers, and gives a tearful handshake. “Thank you, Madame Secretary,” she says. “Thank you.”

Permanent residency limbo: Assistant
Professor of Marketing Xiaojing Dong
confronts delays. Napolitano offers help.

Photo: Joanne Lee

Later in the evening, Napolitano will say, “Those are the ones I go to bed thinking about. The faces. The pain. That’s what I think about—all the time.”

Prior to fielding questions that afternoon, Napolitano reminds the audience that President Obama had asked her to lead the charge for immigration reform. “It’s going to require some heavy lifting,” Obama said in a June meeting with lawmakers. Napolitano, he said, would “start systematically working through” the thorniest issues surrounding immigration.

Napolitano’s visit to SCU comes on the heels of a Department of Homeland Security announcement that it would alter how it houses detainees: For some of the 400,000 men, women, and children in its charge, the department would begin using converted hotels and nursing homes instead of jails and walled detention centers. Some, but not all, immigrants-rights advocates welcomed the change as a significant step.

At Santa Clara, Napolitano describes comprehensive immigration reform as an airplane lined up on a runway, waiting to take off; it is next, after health-care reform and financial regulatory reform make it through Congress. “The hope is that when we get into the first part of 2010, we’ll see legislation begin to move,” she says optimistically. “The president wants to get it done.”

That Obama wants legislation to move may not be enough in 2010, of course—especially given the shift in the political landscape in Washington since Christmas. Comprehensive immigration reform would be vexing in any year, notes Pratheepan Gulasekaram, an immigration law expert who teaches at SCU’s School of Law. “Everyone thinks we need comprehensive immigration reform,” he says, “but very few people agree on what that means.”

For her Santa Clara audience, Napolitano illustrates what the immigration landscape has looked like for far too long: millions of undocumented workers who have crossed America’s borders illegally in search of work and a better life, with more crossing every day. Too many employers willing to flout the law in order to hire cheap labor. A years-long backlog of paperwork caused by endless layers of bureaucracy.

“As a result,” Napolitano says, “twelve million people here illegally, living in the shadows—a source of pain and conflict.”

One of those 12 million steps to the microphone next—a sophomore at Santa Clara. “There are many undocumented students here at SCU, and we are as hard-working as any student,” she says. She is a Latina of slight build, but she is confident and she wants action. “When we graduate, we are unable to get jobs in our fields. This is a tremendous waste of skill and resources.”

While no California or federal law bars admission of undocumented students at public or private colleges and universities, the students’ status makes them ineligible for federal financial aid. All but nine states, meanwhile, make undocumented students pay out-of-state tuition, and just a handful offer them financial aid.

Soon another student stands up and expresses grave concern over escalating violence in her home town of El Paso, Texas. She’s on the verge of tears. Border violence is a theme Napolitano herself brings up later: the horrendous suffering that drug cartels have inflicted on Mexico in recent years.

One by one students and professors go to the microphone, bringing Napolitano their personal stories of worry and heartbreak. She greets them with equanimity. What becomes clear to the audience is something Napolitano has long known: The immigration issue may seem insurmountable, but it comprises millions of smaller stories. The challenge is to connect the dots in a way that makes sense—to create a picture that accounts for economics, security, trade policy, criminal justice, and family values.

Enforcement and demand

Kristin Heyer, an associate professor in Santa Clara’s religious studies department, focuses on immigration issues in her scholarship and writing. Just months before Napolitano took the helm at DHS, Heyer wrote in America magazine that, in the past decade, the United States had “tripled its border agents, quintupled its budget, and toughened enforcement strategies; but undocumented immigration still has reached record levels.”

Despite intensified enforcement, the slow flow of legal documentation for immigrants hasn’t kept up with labor demand. But that only begins to hint at the complexity of the immigration predicament, which pits native versus foreign-born workers, industry versus organized labor, cultural conservatives versus social justice advocates, even different generations of immigrants against one another. Will comprehensive reform prioritize visas or worker visas? Skilled or unskilled workers? How to balance the tension between unduly criminalizing the presence of those trying to work to feed their families against the risk of blanket amnesty, which would provide sanctuary to those who have committed violent offenses or pose some threat? How to support the thousands of children who have been separated from their families as a result of workplace raids?

“A comprehensive approach to reform will need to integrate matters of trade, development, labor, border security, detention, and family unification policies,” Heyer says.

A nation of immigrants and laws
Her home turf: Former sections editor for The Santa Clara newspaper, Napolitano takes a look at more recent student journalism.
Photo: Joanne Lee

Homeland Security is a dizzying amalgam of 22 previously discrete federal agencies. It is the department paradoxically responsible for both preventing immigrants from entering the United States illegally and helping millions of them stay under the law. Prior to coming to Santa Clara in October, Napolitano had spent the previous 10 months negotiating the department’s Byzantine structure, attempting to get all the agencies (and their quarter-million employees) to collaborate more effectively. Now Napolitano is ready to present a three-pronged approach to immigration reform that encompasses all the agencies under her purview.

“This approach demands responsibility and accountability from everyone involved: immigrants, employers, and government,” Napolitano tells her SCU audience. It will involve a commitment to law enforcement, including lasting resources at the borders; an improved legal process for family and workers, as well as improvement to worksite enforcement; and a firm-but-fair way to deal with those immigrants who are already here illegally. “We must require them to register and pay all the taxes they owe, and enforce the penalties they will have to pay as part of earning legal status,” she says. “We are a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. Both have to be respected.”

The legislative road ahead will be trying, Napolitano acknowledges. If immigration reform contains a path to legal citizenship, many members of Congress will oppose it—on the grounds that it will be a de facto amnesty that rewards lawbreakers. But there are approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. “You can either pretend that you’ve got to somehow deport them all—but nobody who’s a serious thinker believes that can happen—or you can figure out a way by which they come out of the shadows, pay a fine for breaking the law, learn English, pay their taxes,” Napolitano says.

“It’s true that too many politicians get wrapped up in the day-to-day kind of fighting that substitutes for political discourse in Washington,” Napolitano says. “But I think the will is there for reform to go through. The American people want reform. They expect us to act, and we will.”

It’s also true that midterm elections are looming, and immigration is a messy issue.

Bipartisan immigration reform has been attempted repeatedly in Congress, notably the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, originally introduced in 2005. Officially known as the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, it would have established provisions for granting citizenship to illegal immigrants already in the United States. The bill stalled in Congress in 2006; a revised version emerged the following spring— the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which again provided a rigorous path toward earned citizenship. President Bush tried to rally support for the revived bill, arguing, “This bill isn’t amnesty. For those who call it amnesty, they’re just trying to, in my judgment, frighten people about the bill.” Frightened or not, the Senate didn’t pass it.

By the end of 2009, bipartisan legislation was in the works again. In separate, Democrat-led legislation, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) filed a bill in December that creates a path for legal citizenship. It sets the fee for the process much lower than previous legislation, which has led some to question its chances for success from the outset.

There is also the DREAM Act—which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors—a piece of proposed legislation originally introduced to Congress in 2002 that has been denied a floor vote several times. Reintroduced last year, the bill would provide certain undocumented immigrant students who graduate from U.S. high schools the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency. At Napolitano’s October presentation, University President Michael Engh, S.J., remarked on the University’s support for the act. Some back the legislation on the grounds of social justice; others see it as strengthening the country’s economic future.

Again and again, though, these and other proposals that address earned citizenship run up against a similar problem, observes David DeCosse. He directs campus ethics programs at SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and in conjunction with a visit by Napolitano to campus in 2008, he participated in a colloquium that brought together some leading Catholic thinkers on immigration. One point agreed on: the mechanics of earned citizenship itself are not well understood by the public. Nor are recent proposals similar to 1986 legislation—which may still be present in the memory of many. That legislation, DeCosse notes, “extended permanent residency to the undocumented after only 18 months of residency and on the basis of a much less onerous work requirement.”

Even if Washington doesn’t enact comprehensive reform, municipalities have shown a willingness to take matters into their own hands. San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance has drawn national attention; in essence, it states that city employees will not help enforce federal immigration laws unless required to do so by law. New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have their own versions of this legislation. Santa Clara’s Gulasekaram notes that the motive isn’t ideology; it’s pragmatism. “Those cities are doing that because, on a day-to-day basis, for people’s interaction, safety, and so on, harsh immigration reform is not working.”


Michael Chertoff, who preceded Napolitano in overseeing Homeland Security, once compared his position to that of an NBA referee: “You’ll know I’m doing a good job,” he said, “if you never hear anyone mention my name.”

Napolitano spent her first year as secretary largely out of the headlines, save for a time in April, when DHS warned law enforcement agencies of possibly violent “right-wing extremists” concerned with the election of an African-American president and increasing federal power. Napolitano’s agency pointed to returning U.S. military vets as a target for recruitment by extremist groups. Napolitano eventually apologized for the language in the report, and the issue quickly faded.

The Christmas Day underwear bomber put her back in the spotlight. A Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to detonate plastic explosives on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Various branches of the intelligence community were aware that concerns had been raised about Abdulmutallab as a potential terrorist, but his name did not make its way onto the U.S. no-fly list.

Despite the failure of agencies to connect existing pieces of intelligence on Abdulmutallab, Napolitano said on two Sunday morning news programs following the incident that “the system worked.” She told CNN’s Candy Crowley: “The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action. Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 129 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred … We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe.”

A day later, Napolitano appeared uncharacteristically flummoxed; she said her words had been taken out of context and told Today Show host Matt Lauer that the comment referred to the reaction in the 60 to 90 minutes after the suspect attempted to blow up the plane. Lauer pressed: Up until that point, did the system fail miserably? “It did,” Napolitano said.

As President Obama put it, “our intelligence community failed to connect those dots.” That was not to lay blame at the doorstep of DHS. Even so, it was also a stark reminder of the other items in Napolitano’s broad portfolio: Immigration reform may still be one of the planes lined up on the runway in 2010, but weather, accident, or terrorist incident—even a U.S. Senate seat election in Massachusetts—can alter flight plans.

Major shift

The title of Napolitano’s keynote speech at Santa Clara, “Homeland Security in a Networked Age,” might have seemed a bit antiseptic at first glance. But she approached it with the spirit of “We are all in this together.” That applies to disaster preparedness and responding to a pandemic. It also applies to the ripple effects of drug-related violence thousands of miles away. “That’s affecting what’s going into your streets, not just in San Jose, but in Madison, or in Cleveland,” she tells her SCU audience. Most poignant of all, Napolitano says, the metaphors of network and connectivity apply to immigration reform.

She speaks of a “major shift” in attitudes toward immigration reform in recent months unlike any she’s seen since she began dealing with immigration in 1993, first as a U.S. attorney and later as Arizona’s attorney general and governor. She insists that progress is being made. New technology is being employed, both at the border and in immigration offices, where a twoyear backlog for background checks on green card and naturalization applicants is being alleviated. DHS is taking care of the demand side of illegal immigration by auditing the workforces of more businesses in one month than had been checked in all of 2008.

It’s a beginning. Though if the audience members who came to hear Napolitano at Santa Clara left for home feeling overwhelmed at the sheer enormity of immigration reform, they could hardly be blamed.

Napolitano might have departed thinking about smaller things: the earnest but undocumented student who’d not be able to find a job. The Texas native whose border community was being torn apart by drug lords. The professor in desperate need of permanent residency—whose papers she carried in her hands.

As her car exited the campus, Napolitano rode past nearly 1,000 noisy but peaceful protesters who stood four deep for blocks. They carried candles and signs written in English and Spanish reading “Keep Our Families Together,” “Reform Not Raids,” and “Justice For Immigrants.” Horns honked, lights flashed.

It was a crowd made up of individual faces, each belonging to a person with their own story—though all connected.

Justin Gerdes contributed to this report.

Read about Janet Napolitano’s Busy Day at SCU.

Listen to a podcast from Janet Napolitano’s talk and the Q&A.

Background Check:

Napolitano’s C.V.

Birthplace: New York, N.Y.

Home City: Phoenix, Ariz.

B.A. in Political Science, Santa Clara University, 1979
J.D., University of Virginia Law School, 1983


  • Secretary of Department of Homeland Security, Jan. 2009 to present
  • Governor, State of Arizona, 2002–2008
  • Attorney General, State of Arizona, 2002–2008
  • U.S. Attorney, District of Arizona, 1993–1998

The call:
Napolitano is sometimes asked, “‘How was the offer made to be the secretary of Homeland Security? Like did you get a letter?’ Nobody gets letters anymore,” she told an audience at SCU. “Here’s what happened. I was the governor of Arizona. And I came home from playing tennis on a Sunday morning shortly after the election, and my voicemail was beeping. I hit the button, and the voicemail said, ‘Hi, Janet, this is Barack, give me a call, here’s the number.’ So I wrote down the number, and then I hit the erase button. And then I realized, I have just erased the president-elect of the United States of America. I was not sure that was a good move.”

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