The Razor's Edge: Janet Napolitano

Arizona governor Janet Napolitano is on the front lines of the battle over immigration.

By Alexis Jetter
Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano
Photograph: Photo by: Dan Winters

Crossing the Border
Every day nearly 5,000 Mexican men, women, and children try to dig, run or climb across the Arizona-Mexico border, looking for work and a better life. Some scale razor-sharp metal fences; others crawl through storm drains. But most of them simply walk into the unforgiving heart of the Sonoran Desert, a stark landscape of thorny mesquite, giant saguaro, rugged mountains, and — with increasing frequency — human remains. In 2007, the U.S. Border Patrol and humanitarian volunteers found 235 bodies, some just bleached skeletons, in the Sonoran’s arid expanse. "It’s a hard crossing," says Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, 50, as she gazes out the window of the police cruiser that doubles as her second home during weekly treks around the state. "The desert is picturesque, but it’s deadly if you’re walking in 120-degree heat. And you can’t carry enough water to make it across."
It is a rare unguarded moment for Napolitano, who knows only too well that expressing sympathy for people trying to duck across the border can be politically costly. Indeed, all the presidential candidates, Democratic and Republican alike, are finding slippery footing in what commentators call the immigration swamp. Nowhere is this debate more frenzied than in Arizona, where a human wave is cresting along the state’s southern tier, the nation’s busiest portal for illegal immigrants. In 2007, the Border Patrol arrested 416,231 of them here — almost half the number detained in the entire United States. For millions of immigrants, blocked by crackdowns at formerly busy crossings in California and Texas, Arizona is the only way in.
It’s Janet Napolitano’s job to stop them.
Hard Right at the Border
Policing the border is an uncomfortable task for a moderate Democrat of immigrant stock who came to power promising more money for schools, improved healthcare, and an even shake for women, Hispanics, Native Americans, and the poor. But Napolitano — a turbocharged five-foot-four-inch woman with short black hair and a white forelock — has shown she can do it all. A Manhattan-born former prosecutor, she combines Rosie O’Donnell’s brash charm with the political shrewdness of Bill Clinton and, reaching further back, the common touch of Fiorello La Guardia, New York’s blustery former mayor. "I am very pragmatic," says Napolitano, relaxing in her statehouse office near a custom-tooled leather saddle, a gift from the governor of the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora. "I’m not a flowery speaker. But I’ll talk with anybody about what needs to happen and why."
A rising star in the national Democratic party, Napolitano fairly hums with intensity. She’s pugnacious, fiercely opinionated, thin-skinned, and hooked on goofy one-liners. Supporters say she has perfect political pitch in a swing state that’s an economic and social blueprint for a changing America. Critics call her a chameleon, willing to embrace any position that bolsters her approval ratings. But nobody sells Napolitano short. As Jana Bommersbach, a veteran Arizona journalist, says, "Janet is easily the smartest person in the room in any situation."
One recent afternoon, though, Napolitano was nearly knocked off balance — and by a most unlikely challenger: Uriel Martinez, 17, a shy, bespectacled youth who’s part of an Arizona State University program for gifted math and science students. Martinez rose to greet Napolitano during a campus visit and then told the class that he would not be able to attend college. "This is the closest I can get," he said softly. "Because I’m not a U.S. citizen. I was 12 when my parents came. And so I’m not eligible for financial aid."
Four years ago, Arizona voters passed a series of ballot measures that barred illegal immigrants from receiving a host of benefits, including tuition assistance. Every student in the room grew silent, waiting for Napolitano’s response. "I want to talk directly to you," she told Martinez. "It is a hard time now, a hard historical time and a hard time for you. But I want you to know: There is private money that can help you go to college. You’re not out there by yourself."

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