Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

March 29, 2010


Host: Ted Simons

U.S.Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano


  • A discussion about border security, immigration and other challenges facing our nation.
Guests:
  • Janet Napolitano - U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security
Category: Immigration

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Border security, illegal immigration, and terrorism are all challenges facing our nation, and confronting and dealing with those challenges is the responsibility of the United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, who joins us during a brief return visit to Arizona. Good to see you again, thanks for joining us.

Janet Napolitano: Great to be back in Arizona.

Ted Simons: How does it feel to be back, by the way? Really, truly.

Janet Napolitano: It's lovely. I mean, it's such a great day, a beautiful state's great time of year, the orange blossoms are out, spring training is underway, it's just great.

Ted Simons: Is it like, when you go back home for vacation, you've got to see 47,000 different people and there's no time to do it all?

Janet Napolitano: There is a little bit of that. You see a number of people, I was out last night to give a lecture at Arizona State, did a number of meetings today, work related. Again, it's always good to be home.

Ted Simons: Are you keeping up with Arizona issues back there in Washington?

Janet Napolitano: A little bit, not in detail obviously. In part because the portfolio of things I have to deal with is so huge, and also because I just don't get the flavor you do as governor. I know it's been a tough time.

Ted Simons: It has been. I want to get into that maybe a little bit later on. Before we do that, the job: Homeland Security Director, is it what you thought it would be? Have you been surprised by things in office?

Janet Napolitano: Some of it, but no. I had worked previously with ICE and customs and border protection and FEMA and all those issues. One of the things that has been most surprising is the international reach of the job. If you really wait to get to the physical borders of the United States to do security, it's almost too late. You're only playing defense at that point. So a lot of my work is involved negotiating agreements with foreign countries, really getting very familiar with the details of counterterrorism work going on around the world.

Ted Simons: Indeed. You just returned from a trip to Mexico and I want to get started with this. A big-time contingent of Americans officials down there, yourself included. How urgent is it to get some kind of improvement going on regarding the drug wars down there?

Janet Napolitano: I think terrific urgency. A high-level group, it was the Secretary of State, the secretary the Defense, the Director of Homeland Security, the director of national intelligence, the head of the drug control office, that's a big-time delegation. We met with our counterparts, we met with President Calderon. We all understand this war against the cartels is one in which Mexico has a huge stake, but so does the United States.

Ted Simons: The idea of this war on drug traffickers, a lot of people in Mexico say it's simply not working. And it might have been a mistake for the President to take this particular tack. How do you see it?

Janet Napolitano: I would disagree. I think it's exactly the right thing to do. You cannot allow large criminal organizations like these cartels to continue to exist, indeed to, thrive. From the United States' perspective, we don't want cartels like this existing just on the other side of our border, indeed on the other side of a bridge from El Paso. We all have something to gain by making sure that President Calderon is successful.

Ted Simons: Is he succeeding?

Janet Napolitano: I think progress is being made. We focus on the homicide in Juarez, and Juarez remains probably the toughest place in Mexico, but successes are being made. Some of the key drug kingpins now have either been killed or captured. But there is -- again, these are huge organizations with fingertips that literally go into hundreds of communities in the United States. They are a security risk as much as a drug trafficking risk at this point. We were glad to be down there.

Ted Simons: As far as your position is concerned and what you are responsible for, the idea of this violence spilling into the United States, we haven't seen anything to the level they are seeing in Mexico. But that threat seems to be there. Some are saying it's not if, it's when. How do you see that?

Janet Napolitano: Well, it has not spilled over in the way that it was predicted. But we are fully prepared to deal with it, should it bring regular contact with sheriffs and police chiefs along the border, the entire expanse of the border. We are working very closely with Mexican law enforcement, and particularly federal law enforcement on the southern side of the border to prevent that violence from coming over.

Ted Simons: Is there cooperation with Mexican law enforcement, A? And B, is corruption still a problem with law enforcement officials down there?

Janet Napolitano: We are seeing a closer degree of cooperation with the Mexican government than I have ever seen. I have worked as the U.S. Attorney General for Arizona, plus governor. I've been working this border for a long time and I have never seen this kind of commitment and cooperation with the highest levels of the Mexican government. Corruption remains an issue. We are working together on that. For example, we're assisting in vetting our polygraphing and training officers, making sure that people have the proper training and supervision. They have a parallel organization to ours on this side of the border.

Ted Simons: I'm sure you've heard, and we've here heard as well, that Mexican officials say maybe the biggest problem is demand for the drugs here in America, and weapons, ammunition, these sorts of things from America making their way to Mexico. What are you seeing as far as the fight -- first of all, is this -- it seems as though as long as that demand is there, the supply is going to be coming up from the south. What do we do about that? Look at decriminalizing marijuana and other drugs in America?

Janet Napolitano: Both Secretary Clinton and I have been pretty public in our comments about demand. We say, look, the United States has a shared responsibility and that shared responsibility deals with demand. Somehow in the last decade or so it does seem like we've lost that anti-drug message that we don't want our young people experimenting with drugs, we certainly don't want them to become users or drug addicts. Somehow that message has gotten lost or dissipated. We need to get back to that, get back to prevention, early intervention. We need to get back to how do we better deal with those who have become addicts and assist them in withdrawing from their addictions. This is part and parcel of the drug demand reduction plan that the President has embarked upon with the leadership of the drug czar, who is himself a former police chief, the police chief of Seattle. So we know that demand is part and parcel of this. We know this is a shared responsibility. But from a security side, which is the chair I occupy, it's also a security issue for us. We need to deal with it on both sides of the border.

Ted Simons: And a security issue for you, as well, would be these armed gangs, armed to the teeth and then some, getting what Mexican officials say is a lot of ammunition and weapons from America. Are they accurate when they say that? Is it a valid criticism of the United States, in that we can't seem to keep that flow from happening?

Janet Napolitano: Well, it's interesting. About nine months ago we began southbound inspection of vehicles. We also began for the first time inspecting rail that is going south into Mexico, using mobile X-ray machines, license plate readers, K-9 teams trained to smell out guns, explosives, bulk cash. You can train a dog to smell almost anything. We've got special teams trained to smell guns going south. We're really working that issue about the southbound flow of arms. The plain fact of the matter is there are a lot of arms already in Mexico. The plain fact is that there are arms coming in other ways, as well. For example, across Mexico's southern border. Nonetheless, anything we can do to slow, impede the flow of illegal bulk cash and guns to these cartels is a good thing.

Ted Simons: When Mexican officials bring up demand and guns and these things, can you point to successes? Can you point to concrete successes or at least a way that America is trying to improve the situation?

Janet Napolitano: Oh, absolutely. And you know, it's not as if we only meet at the high level basis. We are working together day in and day out from agents in the field, their supervisors, to those who are running ICE and CDP, working day in, day out with their Mexican counterparts. That's part and parcel of cooperation. And again, there needs to be a sense of urgency about this. This is critical for Arizona. We are right here, it is part of the front lines and it needs to be something that Arizonans are really cognizant about.

Ted Simons: No more funding for the virtual border fence now. I remember we used to keep asking about that thing, and it never seemed to work. It's just not working, is it?

Janet Napolitano: Well, the first phase will be complete, that's basically the Arizona phase. But here's the problem. This was a concept entered into five or six years ago, where we would have cell towers built along the U.S.-Mexican border. These would end up intercepting signals of those trying to cross illegally, and then the border patrol would go out and pick them up. It sounds like a pretty simple idea. The problem is when you actually try to carry that out, given the topography, geography, temperatures, everything else at the U.S.-Mexican border, when you learn that they never synced up what was going on with what the border patrol officers actually need on the ground, it's over cost and late at every deadline -- you say, wait a minute, why are we continuing into Phase 2, Phase 3, Phase 4, without saying time out, are there other things we could get right now and put in the hands of our agents?

Ted Simons: With that now on hiatus, if you will, are we at more risk at the border? People are counting on that thing to provide security. It's not doing it to the point I think people had expected, at least what's up is up, what's not is not. Are we at more risk?

Janet Napolitano: No, to the contrary. We are moving technology and dollars to things we know work. We are getting technology in the field more quickly to those who can actually use it and are using it. If we didn't do this we would literally have hundreds of millions kind of sucked up in the SBI net program. We're doing an overall look, a fresh look with our best science people on it. After that, it may be that if you do these things, it really makes sense in the long haul and we'll go back to it. Or we will end up saying, no, our technology dollars are better spent elsewhere for the time being. We've moved all the SBI net technology dollars.

Ted Simons: What do you think is the best method? Is there a technology out there we're not aware of? Do you still think the border fence is a good idea, at least in principle?

Janet Napolitano: I think what we ought to do is exactly what I've laid out doing, surprisingly, which is move the dollars that are in SBI net now and the stuff we know works right now. Mobile radar systems, laptops that are telecommunications equipment, other equipment for our border patrol agents. And get it down on the field and get it out right now. And then before we invest huge chunks more of money, time, effort, whatever, take a fresh look.

Ted Simons: Overhauling immigration laws: You've said that is a priority with the Obama administration. What kind of overhaul are we talking about here?

Janet Napolitano: I think it's the kind of overhaul our nation's immigration laws need. It is reforming some of the enforcement laws which are out of date and don't give us adequate enforcement tools. It's dealing with the issue of temporary workers in the right way. It is -- things like the Dream Act for kids who are brought here by their parents. They didn't themselves cross by their own volition, but now they are barred from being able to get a higher education. And it is a process by which those in the country illegally register. They provide their biometrics, they pay a fine, commit to learn English if they haven't already. They pass a criminal background check. If they meet all of those criteria, are able to remain in the United States.

Ted Simons: Many of those ideas have their critics and in some cases loud and vocal and influential critics. Some are saying the Democrats don't want to touch immigration overhauls and reform and such in an election year. Do you see much movement in Washington to tackle this issue now with the elections coming up?

Ted Simons: Well, I think, you know, first of all, last week there was a bipartisan enunciation of the principles I just laid out by Chuck Schumer in New York and Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. One democrat, one republican. The President has endorsed those principles. Now you have a bipartisan enunciation of principle, you have the President endorsing those principles. A lot of the statutory drafting has been done with prior efforts or while health care was being debated month after month after month. A lot of that work is done. What remains of course is the political process. The President has the comprehensive immigration reform on his agenda, as well as financial institution reforms so we don't repeat some of the excesses that led to this recession. As well as energy, and making sure that this country is energy independent moving forward. Those are some of the major issues left on his plate.

Ted Simons: I've heard the administration and pundits say financial reform is next, could be climate control next. Not hearing much about immigration reform. Not hearing that Washington is as anxious to do that as some of these other reform efforts.

Janet Napolitano: Some of them are already further along in the process. Comprehensive immigration reform has lagged behind in terms of the legislative process. What the President has said repeatedly in every meeting I have been in with him on this topic, this is on his agenda, he wants to get it done.

Ted Simons: The State of Arizona, which obviously you were a part of enforcement law here -- before we get further on that, would you like to see the country in some ways mirror what Arizona is doing as far as enforcement for immigration?

Janet Napolitano: Oh, I think Arizona is unique.

Ted Simons: We'll leave it right there.

Janet Napolitano: We will.

Ted Simons: Okay. Let me try to do an addendum there. There are attempts in the state legislature to make Arizona more unique in terms of enforcement. Is that something, again, the nation should look at? The idea of simple trespass laws, the idea that government workers and bureaucrats if they find someone who may not be here legally have a duty and responsibility and could be penalized, if they don't report these folks? Is that the path you think makes best sense for immigration reform?

Janet Napolitano: The trespass law -- I'm trying to be careful not to comment on things that are being done in Arizona. Obviously, although I'm still a registered voter here, I'm living and working in Washington right now. I did veto the trespass law several times, and in my veto message I was pretty clear why. I thought that was going too far in terms of converting everything into a state offense. You need state law enforcement focusing on murder and sexual assault and child protection and all the rest. It's why law enforcement by and large throughout the states opposes laws like that one.

Ted Simons: When you were governor, you used to bill the Feds somewhat routinely for the cost of illegal inmates in Arizona. Now that you're back in Washington are you helping us get some of that money back?

Janet Napolitano: I used to bill the Justice Department, which is where that account is.

Ted Simons: But you know where it is.

Janet Napolitano: It's down the road, yeah. I think again it points to, look, the immigration issue is not going to go away. It's a tough issue. There are passions on both sides. But as the nation has just demonstrated, the Congress has just demonstrated, it can deal with tough issues. The nation needs that for the 21st century. This is an issue about immigration, we are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, also an issue of security. I'd like to add this point because it's a different point than I saw when I was governor. Now that I'm secretary of Homeland Security, the notion that we have millions of people in the country whose identities we don't know, who could be here for whatever source, for whatever reason, that's a security issue, as well as an immigration issue. You have to have some sort of system where they register. We know who they are. They have a criminal background check. They pay the fine, get right with the law. Otherwise you have this great unknown within your own population.

Ted Simons: Lets hit some other security issues here quickly. You were criticized with a report on right-wing extremism a while back.

Janet Napolitano: About a year ago, I think.

Janet Napolitano: I had just started.

Ted Simons: Indeed.

Ted Simons: But some folks thought it went too far and it was vague and too broad. But now we're hearing about vandalism around the country in certain ways, shapes and forms. Do you think that threat is still there?

Janet Napolitano: Well, I've got to separate those two things. The report was rightfully criticized as not very good in terms of it hadn't been properly vetted and not written in a good, useful way for law enforcement purposes. We set that aside. We now have corrected that process and we have a process by which we do sharing of information with law enforcement. That's much better now than it was a year ago when I had just started. With respect to the country as a whole, we have -- we're having no doubt a vehement argument about health care. And there is great room in our system and politics for vehement arguments. What there should be no tolerance for is violence, and threatening and violent behavior. And I think people and leaders in both parties need to say chill. Everybody take a deep breath, return to the notion of civil debate.

Ted Simons: Not necessarily a bridge between those two concepts and topics there?

Janet Napolitano: I wouldn't presume one, no.

Ted Simons: The attempted suicide bomb attack, you called that a learning experience. What did you learn?

Janet Napolitano: I learned a number of things. First of all, that when -- we're talking about Christmas Day.

Ted Simons: Uh-huh.

Janet Napolitano: It turns out when somebody gets into any airport in the world that is international, they potentially have entrance into the entire global aviation system. We could not just respond on Christmas Day from a domestic standpoint. We had to look at the entire global aviation system. I learned that al-Qaeda remains ever more intent upon attacking the United States and our allies, and that among the methods of attack is attack on commercial aviation. I learned that they are pretty shrewd about gaps in the system and there were things we need to do to fill the gaps and leap-frog ahead to do everything we can to prevent a successful attack on either commercial aviation or on the homeland itself. All of that has led to substantial work in the intervening months.

Ted Simons: Change has happened then?

Janet Napolitano: Already air travelers have seen it. You've seen more advanced imaging technology, K-9 teams, officers, federal air marshals in domestic airports. We now have been negotiating around the globe new aviation security agreements.

Ted Simons: Last couple questions: Personally, break from elected politics. That is somewhat liberating for you?

Janet Napolitano: Yeah. It's a very different role to be in an appointed position, as opposed to elected. They both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Ted Simons: Do you miss the elected politics part?

Janet Napolitano: I always loved the give and take politically, and I like a good campaign.

Ted Simons: I must say that we've talked obviously to lots of folks on this program. Sometimes I'll hear from Democrats that are a little disappointed in your decision. The gist of it is, you left them, left them with a situation in which it was impossible for them to have a voice and impossible for them to be heard. These sorts of things coming again from Democrats. How do you respond to that?

Janet Napolitano: It was a tough decision, no doubt. Two things: One is, I have a firm belief when the President asks you to serve, you ought to serve, it's about serving the country. I didn't go off to do something on my own, it was a call to serve the country in a different capacity. That call is one that ought to be heeded. No political party depends on one person. Many people here have many ideas and many opportunities to express them. Now is the time for them to exercise that opportunity.

Ted Simons: Very good. Good to see you again. Thank you so much for joining us.

Janet Napolitano: Good to be back.

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