WASHINGTON — Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, a vocal critic at times of the federal government's response to illegal immigration, faced little questioning Thursday on the topic as senators considered her nomination to be secretary of the huge Department of Homeland Security.
The department, created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, employs more than 200,000 people responsible for border and port security, airline passenger screening, natural disaster response and many other functions. But its role in enforcing immigration law and policing the border is among the most politically sensitive of its tasks.
Napolitano has criticized the federal program to build a fence along the border with Mexico. "I don't think I would be giving good advice to the committee if I said that's the best way to protect our border," she said at her confirmation hearing.
She said fences in urban areas could be more helpful, but that manpower and technology offered more workable approaches than a physical barrier.
She did not discuss the comprehensive immigration policy that was debated in the last Congress, which included provisions to give many illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship.
Democratic and Republican senators alike were quick to praise Napolitano's qualifications while detailing the scale of the challenges she faces.
"It's all going to be warm and fuzzy today, and that's probably going to be it," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
Napolitano, 51, a Democrat, is in her second term as Arizona's governor. She has also served as a U.S. attorney and state attorney general. Her experience combating illegal immigration was cited as a significant factor in her nomination.
"We will work to create a unified vision for this agency," Napolitano told senators. "In its short existence, we have seen -- sometimes too clearly -- the consequences of parochial lines and failure to communicate across those lines."
Napolitano said she would work to increase pressure on companies in the U.S. that hire illegal immigrants after McCaskill criticized the Bush administration's efforts in that arena.
"I believe the previous administration purposely looked the other way when it came to employers," McCaskill said.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) used the occasion to discuss President Bush's remarks earlier in the week defending the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
The response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which the department oversees, was widely criticized as slow and confused. It prompted several structural reforms.
"No one except maybe the outgoing president would say in the entire world that the response was quick," Landrieu said.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he hoped Napolitano would be quickly confirmed by the full Senate.