Skip to main content

Napolitano stumbled on immigration

By Edward Alden, Special to CNN
July 13, 2013 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Alden: Obama may think immigration fight will go better with Janet Napolitano leaving
  • Alden: Napolitano legacy mainly positive in disaster responses, action on terrorism
  • But he says she failed to make Obama's case on immigration, made few inroads with GOP
  • Alden: Obama should quickly replace her with someone to push immigration reform over line

Editor's note: Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was the project director for the 2009 Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, co-chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Mack McLarty, former White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

(CNN) -- There is no reason to believe Friday's resignation announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is anything other than her jumping at a better job offer -- the chance to be the next president of the University of California system.

But the surprise move may also suggest that President Barack Obama believes immigration reform -- which could be the signature legislative accomplishment of his second term -- faces a better chance in the Republican House of Representatives with someone else in charge at the Department of Homeland Security. The president should move quickly to name a replacement with stronger credibility on both sides of the aisle who can help push the bill over the finish line.

Edward Alden
Edward Alden

Napolitano's legacy at DHS will be mostly a positive one. Since the department's creation in the aftermath of 9/11, the primary job of DHS has been to prevent major terrorist attacks, and the ones that occurred under her watch (Boston, Fort Hood, Texas) were, thankfully, relatively small and probably impossible to have pre-empted. Emergency response to disasters, another core DHS responsibility, was vastly better in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy than it was after Hurricane Katrina.

Janet Napolitano: Fast Facts

But Napolitano was chosen for the job in 2009 because of her reputation as a tough-minded Arizona governor who appeared to have a better chance than anyone else of building national consensus for immigration reform. For her to leave in the middle of the fight shows how far she fell short.

Why House GOP isn't likely to help Obama
Where the U.S. is most vulnerable
Was the government ready for Sandy?

Since the collapse of the last major immigration reform effort in 2007, the strategy of both the Bush and Obama administrations was to bolster border security and enforcement to reassure Republicans that legalizing 11 million unauthorized immigrants wouldn't bring a new surge across the border. Job No. 1 for Napolitano was to make that case, and the president endured harsh criticism from his supporters while she continued the buildup of Border Patrol agents and fencing, and maintained record levels of deportations.

But there has been little political payoff. Following a key meeting Wednesday of House Republicans to decide on an immigration strategy, for instance, the House GOP leadership issued a statement saying that "this administration cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws."

Napolitano's supporters will say that she did her job, and Republicans kept moving the goal posts, and there is truth to that charge. But she was her own worst enemy in her inability to make the case to Congress and the public.

To take one example: DHS had long measured progress in border security in terms of the "miles under effective control" by the Border Patrol. It maxed out in 2010, when 44% of the border with Mexico was deemed under control. The next year DHS simply abandoned the measure, promising a better set of metrics but then failing to deliver them. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, one of the persuadable opponents of the Senate immigration bill, wrote this week that he has spent the past year asking DHS for a report on border security performance and metrics to define security, and has never received a detailed response.

A second example: Napolitano has promised since 2011 to present Congress with country-by-country data on the number of those who overstay visas and remain in the United States illegally, but again she has yet to deliver. Overstays are thought to make up more than 40% of the unauthorized population, and many in Congress believe the Obama administration has done nothing to address the problem. In fact, overstays appear to have dropped sharply in recent years, but Napolitano's refusal to share the data with Congress has left the mistaken perception that DHS has continued to ignore the issue.

The result has been predictable skepticism to Napolitano's repeated claims that the border has never been more secure. In the absence of hard evidence, she was left asking Congress to trust her.

Obama's choice for her successor should be someone who can restore credibility with the fence-sitting Republicans who will make or break the immigration reform effort, and finish the job that Napolitano left undone.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Alden.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT