If there's one area where Gov. Janet Napolitano has been vulnerable of an attack by Republicans, it's along the border.
GOP lawmakers have delighted in sending bills that crack down on illegal immigrants to Napolitano, who has vetoed most of them. And some of her potential Republican opponents in this year's election--such as Don Goldwater and John Greene--have made illegal immigration a central issue in their campaigns.
So in last week's State of the State address, Napolitano set out to inoculate herself as best she could against the charges. To the surprise of her liberal supporters, Napolitano put illegal immigration front and center in her agenda, calling for $100 million for more border law enforcement and new sanctions against companies that hire undocumented border crossers.
Republican reaction ranged from "she can read the polls" to "she's just doing an act." But what Napolitano has done is find ways to push the responsibility for safeguarding the border back onto Republicans and drive a wedge between the GOP and their allies in the business community.
Take her call to use National Guard troops for border security. Though they don't have a high profile, roughly 174 National Guard troops are already stationed at the border, helping with drug-interdiction projects, repairing fences and assisting in communications between various law-enforcement and related agencies.
Napolitano has asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for additional federal funding to put more soldiers to work. Troops would perform administrative and grunt work, such as working vehicle checkpoints and mobile observation patrols, which would presumably free up federal agents to patrol and apprehend.
It's a move designed to put the burden of dealing with illegal immigration back on the White House and deflect GOP criticism. Unless the federal government comes up with funding--and given that many Guard members are overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, there aren't that many who could be mobilized in any event--the additional troops won't be forthcoming, but state GOP leaders will no longer be able to blame her for blocking the idea.
Napolitano has pulled a similar move regarding the federal government's responsibility to pay the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants convicted of state crimes, sending invoices last year totaling $217 million to the U.S. Justice Department. (Napolitano made a point of mentioning those unpaid invoices in her letter to Rumsfeld.)
The other prong of Napolitano's immigration counterattack revolves around punishing employers as well as migrants. In her State of the State, Napolitano announced that "those who continue to intentionally hire illegal immigrants should face substantial fines and penalties."
Going after employers was a strategy that Democrats came up with toward the end of last year's legislative session, after Republicans had passed various measures targeting illegal migrants who seek state services. The basic strategy: Make Republicans who balk at the additional measures look soft on illegal immigration.
John Dougherty of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce says support for Napolitano's proposal rests on the how the proposal is worded.
"For companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants, I don't think it's a bad idea," says Dougherty. "We have to weed out the bad actors within the business community. But most operations do the follow the law, and they do file all the necessary documents. 'Knowingly' is the key word. We're very scared that businesses could be slapped with a big fine if they're duped by fraud."
How does the governor define "knowingly"? Gubernatorial spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer says the governor's office has given the question "lots of thought--don't know if it's something we're ready to talk about yet."
She says precise language is being worked out in a bill sponsored by state Sen. Bill Brotherton, D-Phoenix, that was expected to be released this week.
Brotherton is emerging as the Democrats' go-to guy on employer sanctions. This session, he's already offering amendments that punish companies that hire illegal immigrants onto various GOP bills, although his early efforts were rebuffed by Republicans last week.
Interested in following the political back and forth at the Capitol? The Arizona Republic has given every lawmaker a chance to blog away at The Virtual Legislature, a project of Plugged In, a political clearinghouse with an absurdly long URL. (Click on "The Virtual Legislature" link.)
So far, only lawmakers from the right end of the GOP--House members Russell Pearce and Pamela Gorman--seem to be taking advantage of the opportunity.
C'mon, Democrats: It's not like you're busy passing legislation. Surely you can fire up the laptop during some of those committee meetings.