EL PASO — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is attending a conference in Texas on border security. She sat down with a Times reporter Monday to discuss a number of issues, including the Mexican drug war, immigration detention in the U.S. and legislative reforms.
How effective have the new technology and extra personnel at the border been, and what more can be done to target the drug cartels and border violence?
They have been very effective because they have been coordinated, they have been targeted, they have been done in collaboration with the Mexicans, which is a change from years past. . . . How has it worked so far? It's done well. What do we need to be doing more of or do differently? We want to continue our joint efforts to add to Mexican civilian law enforcement. At some point, for example, the military needs to leave Ciudad Juarez and we need to have a civilian law enforcement capacity there. . . . You have got to be able to match manpower with technology, with really good, smart, targeted, intelligence-driven law enforcement to really have a system that makes sense.
What impact do you think the recently announced immigration detention overhaul will have on some of the identified problems, including inadequate healthcare?
I think it will have a major effect. On detention, what we have found is just really a lack of standard uniformity applied throughout the system. There are a variety of reasons for that . . . but whenever you detain somebody under the rule of law, you have an obligation to do so meeting certain standards, safety and healthcare and the like. . . . And so everything we are doing is designed to make sure we are meeting those standards.
You are trying to distinguish yourself from the Bush administration by making a lot of policy changes. Nevertheless, there are complaints that you are continuing the policies of the previous administration. What is your response?
Some of this is not Bush policy. It's the law. The underlying complaint is that we are simply enforcing the law. Because people are unhappy with the underlying law doesn't mean that we are not going to enforce it. . . . There is a big effort among many that we need comprehensive immigration reform. I, for one, have said it myself and have been an advocate for it. . . .
What we are doing is smart and I think very effective enforcement. . . . If all you do is a set of raids and you pick up employees and you have a press conference -- but the employer is left or the corporate entity is left to simply sit still for a little bit and go back into the illegal labor market and continue making money and exploiting that market -- then you really haven't done very much in terms of a deterrent aspect. The guidance has been shifted to really . . . work with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to build prosecutable cases against employers who deserve prosecution and also to increase the use of I-9 audits so that folks know out there that we are paying attention. . . . That is classic law enforcement. Classic law enforcement is that you punish but you also deter and that was not happening. . . . With the changes we have made, we will have a much bigger impact on the illegal labor demand side.
What is next in terms of enforcement?
What's next is probably building on what's been done. In other words, I really want to see this worksite enforcement move. So really emphasizing that, working with the U.S. attorneys in terms of actually bringing cases. I really want to make sure that the beginnings of the things that we have started on, detention improvement, that we carry through with those. . . . Let's announce it, sustain it and really build it into the system.
On immigration reform, what are the challenges you are seeing, and how do you bring people together -- labor and business, Democrats and Republicans -- on the key issues, such as the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country?
It's clear that everybody wants it. . . . If I go into a room in a roundtable and I ask, "How many of you are in favor of illegal immigration? Raise your hand," I will have unanimity. Not a hand will go up. Then I say, "How many of you are of the view that we need to make changes to the existing law?" Every hand goes up. . . . You have got that consensus out there. So the challenge really is to say, OK, what are some value-added things we can add to enforcement and at the same time really begin looking afresh at future labor flows and also the issue of those in the country already? . . . Some of these things have already had a majority of the Congress vote for, just never in one bill. . . .
The American people have to have confidence that whatever is done will be carried out, that we won't adopt a bill and then not enforce it over the next 20 years. But as we build that confidence, and we will, part of what we are doing is saying that we need to have smart enforcement of our laws: What makes sense from a labor and economic standpoint? How do you do this and protect the American worker? How do you do this and make sure we have access to the labor capital a growing economy demands?
This interview was condensed from a longer conversation.