SAN DIEGO — In an episode of “Seinfeld,” George Costanza tells Jerry how to beat a lie detector test.
“It’s not a lie,” Costanza insists, “if you believe it.”
Janet Napolitano must be following the script. As the outgoing secretary of the Department of Homeland Security says her goodbyes to Washington, and prepares to start a new job as president of the University of California, she is busy rewriting history.
Napolitano reworked several chapters during a recent speech at the National Press Club, where she took credit for everything that went right with immigration during her nearly five-year tenure – and blamed Congress for the rest.
She has long had trouble being honest when discussing this issue. In 2011, after going before Congress for nearly three years and bragging about how many illegal immigrants had been deported by her department, Napolitano tried to argue that most of those who were removed were really bad people we didn’t want here anyway. She claimed that 55 percent of the folks who were deported in fiscal 2011 were “criminal aliens” (i.e., after the civil infraction of overstaying a visa or entering the country illegally, they broke other laws).
Yet, according to researchers with the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, only about 14.9 percent of the people deported that year were charged with a criminal offense. The other 85.1 percent were folks who were trying to earn a living, working as nannies, gardeners or housekeepers.
During her press club speech, Napolitano blamed Congress for failing to deliver immigration reform and leaving vulnerable to deportation the so-called DREAMers who were brought to the United States by their parents. She also claimed credit for creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allowed these young people to apply for a temporary reprieve and a two-year work permit. She left out one minor detail: Before President Barack Obama unveiled DACA in June 2012, it was her department that was deporting the DREAMers.
I’m not surprised. I’ve known and written about Napolitano for more than 15 years, since she was the U.S. attorney in Arizona and I was a metro columnist at the Arizona Republic. I’ve learned three things: She is a lawyer with only one client – herself; she has no qualms about bending the truth if it hides something that went wrong; and she will do whatever it takes to accomplish her personal goals and advance her career.
Napolitano got elected governor of Arizona, and before that Arizona attorney general, by cozying up to one of the most popular figures in the state: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. When she was still U.S. attorney and her bosses at the Clinton Justice Department conducted a federal investigation of alleged prisoner abuse by deputies at the Maricopa County jail, she even appeared with Arpaio at a news conference and dismissed the findings as a “lawyer’s paper.” It paid off. While polls showed that more than 60 percent of Arizonans wanted Arpaio, a Republican, to run for governor, he avoided a contest against Napolitano.
She got the Homeland Security job – and the chance to lead the Obama administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, which was likely intended to protect blue-collar U.S. workers from foreign competition – because she marketed herself as tough on border security and declared an “emergency” on the Arizona-Mexico border. Once on the job, she instituted monthly quotas for the apprehension of illegal immigrants, took nationwide the Arizona model of using local police to enforce federal immigration law by expanding the program known as Secure Communities, and racked up a record number of deportations – roughly 400,000 per year, or nearly 2 million to date.
But now she is packing up and moving to California – a dark blue state that is more than 38 percent Hispanic, a group that has publicly expressed its displeasure with the Obama administration’s handling of the immigration issue. She has some fences to mend, and she seems to think that the way to do this is to paint herself as a champion of illegal immigrants who could have done so much more if those evil Republicans who control one-half of the legislative branch hadn’t gotten in the way.
Trust me, Napolitano can pull it off. After all, it’s not a lie if she believes it.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.