Article: Query puts Napolitano on the spot
By: Josh Gerstein November 6, 2009
A simple query from the Supreme Court is forcing the Obama administration to wrestle with the limits of states’ authority to enforce immigration laws — and also is throwing an uncomfortable spotlight on Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
On Monday, the justices asked the Justice Department to provide its views on Arizona’s attempt to force employers to verify the immigration status of potential employees. The law being challenged in the cases was signed by Napolitano in 2007, when she was governor of Arizona.
Napolitano has stated that she believes the law is constitutional, but business groups and immigration reform advocates generally in President Barack Obama’s camp are asking the Supreme Court to strike down the statute.
“It is awkward, given the fact that she signed the law,” said Glenn Hamer of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, one of the organizations asking the Supreme Court to take up the issue. “It’s got to be a difficult situation for the administration.”
A spokesman for Napolitano, Matt Chandler, declined to say whether the secretary, who was once a defendant in the case, would recuse herself from the matter. Her department is in charge of enforcing federal immigration laws and thus could be expected to have a voice in the administration’s position.
But Napolitano won’t make the ultimate call, Chandler said, adding, “This is a decision for the solicitor general.”
The Justice Department also declined to discuss what consultations will go into the administration’s response to the court’s query. “The solicitor general is studying the issue,” DOJ spokeswoman Beverley Lumpkin said.
The court’s query demonstrates how the immigration issue forces itself onto the Obama administration’s agenda, even though White House officials have given immigration reform legislation a lower priority than issues such as health care reform and stimulating the economy.
Immigrant advocates said they’re hoping Napolitano will urge the administration to support the challenge to the Arizona law, as improbable as that may seem.
“You can legitimately say Napolitano is wearing a different hat now. She has to take a step back and look at how these efforts have metastasized across the country,” said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council.
“I think the secretary has seen the coin from both sides,” said Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum. “It is the responsibility of DHS to make sure they are the only ones enforcing the immigration laws. ... I think the secretary has to find a way to rectify the situation.”
Hamer noted that Napolitano signed the state law reluctantly amid widespread voter anger about a surge in illegal immigration. “It was a powder keg,” he said. “I received death threats. There was a lot of e-mail with capital letters. ... I don’t think anyone would write a profile in courage on how she handled that issue.”
A federal appeals court rejected the legal challenges to the Arizona law. The Supreme Court has not said that it will take the case but wants the administration’s view on whether further review is warranted.
In a separate development, House Republicans are pressing Obama to consider stricter enforcement of immigration laws at workplaces as a way to increase the number of jobs available to those legally entitled to have them.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement work site enforcement actions save and create jobs for Americans and legal workers if the illegal immigrant workers are detained and deported,” Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and 22 other Republican members wrote Wednesday in a letter to Obama supplied to POLITICO.
Smith said the missive was a response to Obama’s call for job creation ideas during a meeting of his economic advisory board Monday.
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