The University of California Regents have recently appointed former Director of Homeland Security (DHS), Janet Napolitano, as the new UC President. Her nomination was almost unanimous, opposed only by student regent Cinthia Flores who cited Napolitano’s role in implementing harsh immigration policies, such as Secure Communities, under the Obama administration as grounds for her opposition.
Secure Communities’ mission was to detain and deport criminals convicted of serious crimes by sharing data between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI. Many local law enforcement officials wanted to opt out of the program because of the negative impact it had on communities, but were unable to do so. Because of this, Napolitano oversaw the program responsible for the deportation of around 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, 70% of whom had no criminal record or had committed minor crimes such as jaywalking[i] or driving without a license. In addition, victims of domestic violence were also put in removal proceedings after reporting abuse.[ii] Napolitano also expanded the militarization of the border as there are now over 21,000 border patrol agents deployed along the U.S./Mexican Border, which is more than double the number of agents employed in 2004.[iii]
Private prisons like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Geo Group (GEO) are greatly benefiting from strict immigration policies and border militarization. People charged with immigration offenses are being held in detention centers to await trial although, in the past, they were allowed to return to their communities before their hearing. So many people are now in detention that the federal government can’t keep up; half of all detained immigrants are held in private detention centers. These private prisons are making a profit off of the detention of immigrants charged with non-violent crimes such as illegal re-entry which makes up 47% of all criminal immigration prosecutions.[iv] It also should be noted that the UC Regents have a financial portfolio of over $78 billion and are currently invested in corporations that support for-profit prisons.[v]
Secure Communities was responsible for the separation of numerous families and had a profoundly negative effect on the relationship between local law enforcement and the communities that they serve. The fact that Napolitano supported policies such as these is troublesome considering her new position as UC President. She has no background in education but now holds one of the highest positions in the UC system. What has prompted such a drastic career change, and, how will her former positions as Governor of Arizona and DHS affect her decisions as President of the University of California? Hopefully she will change her strategies from those of oppression to those of empowerment.
Napolitano has also supported programs such as 287 (g) which allows local police to act as federal immigration agents. This plan has been criticized by many as a program that destroys the relationship between local police and immigrant communities, further harming public safety. Moreover, while governor of Arizona, Napolitano supported the practices of Sheriff Arpaio, who is self-proclaimed “America’s toughest sheriff.” His treatment of inmates goes above and beyond brutal, ranging from denying inmates adequate food and health care (a case that went to court and a federal judge ruled that he inflicted “needless suffering and deterioration” on the mentally ill), all the way to reinstituting chain gangs.[vi] This again is worrisome because Napolitano has shown favor to police despite the glaring violations of human dignity. UC campuses have recently had problems with police brutality when reacting to students such as protestors in the Occupy movement. Napolitano’s track record does not bode well for social activists on UC campuses. Authority and force have been her methods of choice, and if it continues, so will the use of police brutality at individual UCs.
Although the Regents may view their decision as progressive and beneficial to the UC system, Napolitano’s selection has been met by student protestors who are concerned about the record number of immigrants deported under her watch, the fear instilled in immigrant families, and her institution of policies that have produced barriers to higher education. Her past seems at odds with her new role as the President of one of the most prestigious systems of higher education in a state that has approximately 2.6 million undocumented immigrants living in it.[vii]
Napolitano claims to support higher education for all students, no matter their documentation status. She endorsed the Trust Act, which is surprising because the bill limits the power of Secure Communities, the program whose expansion she oversaw while DHS. The UC system has had recent tuition hikes and cuts to financial aid which block access to higher education for the same communities targeted by Napolitano’s previous policies. What our universities should be investing in is education and communities, not incarceration and divisive policies. There are many ways the new UC President can go about this, such as divesting from private prisons, lowering tuition rates, and giving out more financial aid. If her change of heart is true, it is time for Napolitano to not only voice her support but to also introduce policies such as Socially Responsible Investing to the UC Regents to make sure that UC money does not support corporations that invest in for-profit prisons like CCA and GEO. Education should be the priority of the UC system but tuition hikes, cuts in financial aid, and investment policies show that profit has taken president. Hopefully, her controversial past will not carry on and Napolitano will use her new position to change UC policy, and empower all students, regardless of their immigration status.