Southern Arizona leaders are optimistic that Janet Napolitano's pending job as secretary of homeland security will reap benefits for our region.
But given the missteps of the sprawling, 6-year-old department she'll head--and the backlash it has spawned with everything from the border fence to immigration raids--many wonder whether even our politically facile governor can master this bureaucratic beast.
Still, some see positive signs with Napolitano's appointment. Among them is Ray Borane, former mayor of the Arizona border town of Douglas. It should be noted that Borane has a dog in this fight: He's currently the governor's policy adviser on border and immigration issues, and there's speculation that he might land a spot on her Department of Homeland Security team.
Borane won't comment on the buzz. "But what I can tell you on the record is that I'm still working for her" as governor, he says. "She likes having an immediate presence on the border. She likes knowledge from both sides of the border, and she likes it to be accurate, because that's just the way she always has been. I'll just leave it at that."
Regardless of Borane's future, current Douglas vice mayor Bob Fernandez notes a few things that need immediate DHS attention in his city. Top among them is expansion of the port of entry, "making it so we could cross more automobiles and trucks and people. Every year, the amount increases." The existing port, dating from the 1930s, already handles more than $600 million in goods each year.
Although Douglas is today largely bypassed by the intense truck traffic that overwhelms other, more centrally located ports such as Nogales, crossing waits can still exceed an hour. "I'm sure that people are going to get tired of waiting three days to cross at Nogales," says Fernandez, who owns an electronics-manufacturing plant just across the line in Agua Prieta, Sonora. "Soon, they're going to start coming this way."
In Nogales, Mayor Octavio Garcia-Von Borstel hopes for similar expansion of his city's Mariposa port of entry. The commercial port, Arizona's busiest, each year handles about 250,000 trucks, hauling everything from vegetables to electronics.
But Mariposa has also become a nightmare for U.S.-bound traffic, snarled by battered roads and the inefficiently cramped quarters used by DHS Customs and Border Protection inspectors.
These notorious slowdowns--sometimes lasting days--have shifted much of this lucrative traffic to swifter ports in Texas. Meanwhile, despite local government and business concerns, Congress actually cut $200 million slated for Mariposa renovation. That dismays Garcia-Von Borstel.
"We've been working diligently with the federal government on expansion of that port of entry," he says. "It's one of my top priorities for the city of Nogales and the state of Arizona. It's something we really want to see done here in the very near future."
Garcia-Von Borstel claims to have the ear of Arizona's congressional delegation in making that happen. He recounts a recent meeting with Arizona Sen. John McCain that included discussions of Mariposa and ways to streamline pedestrian crossings at the city's downtown DeConcini port, where foot traffic is crucial to Nogales merchants. "I have complete faith," says the mayor, "that our federal government will diligently work toward those efforts."
But tedious border crossings aren't the only beef with Homeland Security. Businesses are also frustrated with the federal government's faltering employee-identification system called E-Verify. If confirmed to head DHS, Napolitano would administer the program, which employers have criticized as being error-prone. They contend that even employers mistakenly hiring illegal aliens could lose their business licenses, and groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have sued to halt the program.
"I don't know what the new administration is going to do yet, but we continue to be concerned about a reliable and verifiable identification card" for job applicants, says Jack Camper, president of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. "Until they solve that problem, they shouldn't be sanctioning employers."
Another challenge for Napolitano is maintaining smooth communications between her office and border communities--an effort where Borane might play a key role. While local officials generally praise current federal cooperation, that interaction isn't without glitches, including the seemingly simple matter of coordinating radio communications between all levels of government.
"It isn't where we would like it to be," says Chief William Ybarra of the Nogales Police Department. "Right now, we're unable to communicate directly with any of those federal entities by radio. We're basically dependent on cell phones and landlines."
The goal, he says, is "inter-operability," or the use of compatible communications equipment between agencies and his 85-officer department. "It's being able to talk to the feds from the local and county level. It's also about them helping us with funding to complete our fiber-optics lines that will eventually hook us up with Customs and Border Protection, the (Arizona) Department of Public Safety, Santa Cruz County and our Mexican partners."
Ybarra is optimistic that the new administration can make that happen. "We've been working with Gov. Napolitano, through her governor's office, regarding monies related to Homeland Security," he says. "So I'm hoping she'll take those ideas and that experience with her to a federal level and continue to apply that funding to what we're doing down here."
Nonetheless, he praises current federal officials for keeping him in the information loop. "There is an awesome dialogue between the Nogales Police Department and Customs and Border Protection," he says. "That includes the port of entry. We work hand-in-hand and meet monthly to strategize and plan, to make sure we're on the same page."
But all the cooperation in the world won't necessarily solve the border's biggest problem, according to Santa Cruz County Supervisor Manny Ruiz. "Before anything hits the roof, (the federal government) needs to act on illegal immigration," he says. "I believe that if they can take that out of the equation, it would be a lot easier to provide border security."