WASHINGTON — Few people have been closer to the center of the debate over illegal immigration than Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, the top Democrat in a conservative state with little sympathy for illegal immigrants.
While taking a law-and-order posture on immigration enforcement, Napolitano has opposed the construction of a 700-mile wall along the Mexican border and stressed that policing immigration is a federal responsibility.
Now as President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security, she won't be able to pass that buck anymore. It will be her task to enforce the nation's immigration laws, and her selection might be a signal that Obama wants to chart a moderate course on a volatile issue.
Napolitano's job will be among the toughest in Washington for other reasons, too. She must guide an octopus-like collection of two dozen federal agencies charged with protecting Americans from terrorism and natural disasters.
Never miss a local story.
Her selection drew high praise Monday from key Democratic lawmakers and Republicans such as the current homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff, and her home-state senator, John McCain. They said that as a border governor, former U.S. attorney and state attorney general, she has the right mix of managerial skills, law-enforcement experience and understanding of the heated immigration issue to handle the challenges ahead.
In introducing her, Obama said that Napolitano "has spent her career protecting people'' as a law-enforcement official and governor and "knows firsthand the need to have a partner in Washington that works well with state and local governments."
James Ziglar, the last commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President George W. Bush before Congress shifted its functions to the newly created Department of Homeland Security in 2003, said: "I think she is very understanding of the immigration issue.
"She's a very pragmatic, practical person who understands that enforcement is really important, but that . . . we have to have a way for people to come and go legally and serve the needs of our country in terms of labor and immigration,'' he said.
While immigration reform efforts have collapsed in Congress in recent years, Ziglar predicted that Napolitano would work with "middle-of-the-road Republicans . . . to get some meaningful change."
Jack Tomarchio, who resigned in August as a top homeland security intelligence official, said he worries that the incoming Obama administration will be so preoccupied with the nation's financial crisis and ending the Iraq war that fighting terrorism might drop in the pecking order.
"That's a pitfall that they could easily fall into," he said.
Last week's terror attacks in Mumbai, he said, should serve as a sobering alert to Napolitano and others in the administration: No more than 10 shooters with "the collective firepower of a U.S. Army infantry squad . . . pretty much brought (India) to its knees for a couple of days.''
While U.S. agencies work to defend against a biological or nuclear attack, he said, a low-tech attack might be the greater threat.
"The operational actions of those guys in Mumbai is being discussed by people in the Jihadi Internet," Tomarchio said. "They're studying it. They're looking at how they inserted these guys from the sea. They're looking at the kind of weapons they carried, and they're learning from that. These guys are all copy cats."
Tomarchio, who coordinated the creation of 58 to 60 "fusion" centers across the country to ensure that federal, state and local law enforcement intelligence agencies share counterterrorism information, praised the performance of Arizona's unit under Napolitano as "one of the top three."
However, he said, she could face a problem as states face budget shortfalls that could cut fusion center funding.
Mike Signer, a senior policy officer on homeland security for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal research group, said that Napolitano will have a big say in whether to reshape her unwieldy department into "a more nimble, security-focused agency." But first, he said, she must contend with a "staffing crisis" because of a shortage of skilled people for key midlevel jobs in the agency.
As a governor, Signer said, Napolitano should be open to learning from innovative work by cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, which are pioneering ways to infiltrate potential extremist groups and to strengthen surveillance.
"She'll be good at that," he said. "She'll have a natural grasp of the very important role of entities outside of Washington.''
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY