Ordinarily, Napolitano resembles an overgrown kid at public events — laughing and joking with the crowd. But today, back in the car, she needs to vent. "This business of taking immigration policy out on young people just burns me," she says, pushing aside The Rise of American Democracy, a hefty tome that she reads between stops. "That young man has all the potential in the world. If you put that student up in front of a lot of Arizonans, they’d say, ‘Of course I want him to succeed.’ But if you put up a ballot measure and ask, ‘Should we spend tax dollars for college tuition for illegal immigrants?’ they’ll vote no. When you go from the specific to the abstract, you lose that boy’s face."
It’s a struggle, then, to remember that this is the woman who signed a bill that passed into law on January 1, 2008, allowing prosecutors to revoke a business owner’s license if the owner is caught more than once knowingly hiring illegal workers — a law widely described as the most draconian of its kind in the country. Signing the bill has put Napolitano, hailed as one of the sanest voices in the immigration debate, in unfamiliar terrain: denounced by progressives and business leaders alike. Both sides say the law could cripple the state’s economy and embolden such vigilante groups as the Minuteman Project, whose members patrol the border and round up suspected interlopers.
"If I had vetoed that bill, the wrath of God would have descended," Napolitano counters. "The immigration debate is red-hot here." She says she was caught in a bind: Congress failed to enact immigration reform; the state’s schools, prisons, and hospitals are bursting at the seams; and 85 percent of Arizonans support sanctions. "She’s walking the razor’s edge," says Fred Solop, a professor of political science at Northern Arizona University. "And she saw the writing on the wall."
The wall, to be precise. Two years ago, after long resisting calls to militarize the border, Napolitano reversed her position. She persuaded the federal government to station 2,400 National Guard troops along the 376-mile Arizona-Mexico frontier and dropped her opposition to the $6 billion, 700-mile border fence long sought by anti-immigration ideologues. Napolitano once publicly scoffed at the idea of a barricade: "You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder," she repeatedly said. In 2006, however, Napolitano looked on approvingly as President Bush signed into law the bill authorizing its construction.
Despite this about-face, Napolitano says she’s committed to creating a streamlined legal path to citizenship. "People have this idea that the illegal immigrant is this guy who sneaks up to our border with a backpack full of dope, swims the Rio Grande, and skulks into our communities," Napolitano says. "In fact, over half the illegal immigrants came in legally but over-stayed their visas." Napolitano is silent as she looks out her car window at a dry arroyo near Tempe. "You’d do better in a new country if the possibility of citizenship is held out to you," she says finally. "But under current law, no matter how hard you work, how many children you raise — you can still get hauled away."