April 6, 2009
By: Ginger Thompson
LAREDO, Tex. — The five burly, sweat-soaked customs agents were in unfamiliar territory.
They had come from frigid ports in Baltimore and Boston to work in the sweltering heat of the Southwestern border. But the biggest change was that they were looking at what was leaving the country, rather than what was coming in.
“You know, early this week I met with President Obama, and this morning I met with President Calderón of Mexico,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told them during a tour last week. “And you guys are at the cutting edge of something new we’re trying to do to make the border safer.”
Law enforcement officials have been cracking down on border crime for years. President Bill Clinton had Operation Gatekeeper. And President George W. Bush built a wall.
But Ms. Napolitano’s initiative to send an additional 360 agents to the 2,000-mile border with Mexico, announced two weeks ago, is intended not only to respond to growing concerns about national security, she said, but also to change the way Americans view the threat.
Agents are still assigned to stop drugs and illegal immigrants from entering the United States. But hundreds of additional agents are being redeployed to stop the weapons and cash that flow into Mexico.
“We understand that this port needs to move, that time is money, especially when it comes to trade,” said Ms. Napolitano, standing in the shadow of a line of tractor-trailers that extended as far as the eye could see. “But from now on, when trucks come into this port, they are going to see something they haven’t seen before, and that’s southbound inspections.”
The new border policy is one of many ways the hard-charging Ms. Napolitano has begun to refocus the objectives of her sprawling agency. Though the Homeland Security Department was established after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ms. Napolitano rarely uses the word terrorism, and she has said she does not intend to practice the “politics of fear.”
She has said her agency will devote as much attention to preparing for natural disasters as for “man-caused disasters,” her euphemistic term for terrorism. She made public her disapproval of an immigration raid of a mechanics shop in Washington State, freed the immigrants who had been detained, and gave them work permits. Her actions sent a signal that future enforcement would focus on employers who rely on illegal immigrants, rather than on the workers.
Here on the border, which has given rise to some of the country’s most contentious debates, Ms. Napolitano has essentially turned previous policies upside-down, warning Americans that what leaves the country is as much a risk to their security as what comes in.
Her trip last week to the border and to Mexico, to begin working out the details of the $400 million effort, was a mix of high diplomacy and the kind of stumping she once did as governor of Arizona. She shook hands with agents in the field, inspected the border from a Black Hawk helicopter, held meetings with small-town mayors and police chiefs, attended a news conference with her Mexican counterparts, and spent more than an hour with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico.
The trip offered a glimpse of the changes Ms. Napolitano has begun making at the Homeland Security Department and revealed how some of her own views have shifted since she took her new job. Ms. Napolitano was once a leading opponent of the Bush administration’s decision to build some 600 miles of fencing along the border. In an interview, she said she had come to see that the fence has “helped us get operational control of some areas.”
As governor, she was among the first to call for the deployment of the National Guard to help stop smuggling. Now, she said, “minds were open” to a request for troops from Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a Republican. But she said she wanted Mr. Perry to explain how the troops would be used.
On the day after she landed in San Diego during her trip last week, a New Mexico newspaper questioned whether she had forgotten her roots.
“What is it about bureaucrats that makes them compulsive spenders?” wrote The Clovis News Journal, referring to Ms. Napolitano’s decision to complete the final 60 miles of fencing along the border, which has cost an estimated $4 million per mile. “As Arizona governor she famously made light of the project, saying, ‘You show me a 12-foot fence and I’ll show you a 13-foot ladder.’ ”
Asked about the editorial, Ms. Napolitano said there was little she could do to stop the fence’s construction because the project had been approved by Congress before she became homeland security secretary. Now that she is in charge, she said, the agency would invest in fences only as part of a comprehensive strategy that included technology and “boots on the ground.”
“What doesn’t make sense,” she said, “is some notion that if you build a fence along the border, you have a policy for immigration and border security.”
Some Washington lawmakers have also expressed concerns about Ms. Napolitano’s efforts. Conservatives complain that they are not aggressive enough to stop violence from spilling across the border, and immigrant advocates argue that they are the same strategies that have hardly made a dent in the drug trade but put hundreds of illegal immigrants at peril.
The views are familiar to Ms. Napolitano, who spent her time in Arizona fighting Washington gridlock and continues that approach with initiatives that for the most part do not require Congressional funding or approval.
Here in Laredo, Ms. Napolitano learned that the heightened border security might already be yielding results. A few hours before her arrival, the authorities conducting southbound inspections stopped an American couple and a 5-year-old child in a car carrying 10 grenades, nearly $122,000 in cash, a barrel for a sniper rifle and a cache of high-caliber ammunition, officials said.
The man told the authorities that he was a former Marine and that he had obtained the weapons from a military friend linked to drug smugglers in Michigan, officials said.
Climbing aboard her airplane to return to Washington, Ms. Napolitano boasted, “We said we were going to do this, and we’re doing it.”