RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One place that's leading the way in cracking down on illegal immigrants is Arizona. There, an illegal immigrant charged with a serious crime is not allowed to post bail. An employer who hires undocumented workers could have his business shut down, and illegal immigrants are barred from most state services.
These and other tough laws are reaction to a statistic that could surprise many outside the state. More people cross into the U.S. illegally at the Arizona border than any other state.
Janet Napolitano is the Democratic governor of Arizona. She signed some of these restrictions into law. Others were passed by voter initiative, and she joined us from her office at the state house. Governor, welcome.
Governor JANET NAPOLITANO (Democrat, Arizona): Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Now, why has Arizona become what some are calling a testing ground for shutting the door against illegal immigrants?
Gov. NAPOLITANO: It is driven in part by the statistic you cited, and we're not talking, you know, 50 or 60,000 a year. We're talking literally hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants a year crossing over the Arizona border.
And, you know, from an Arizona perspective, the border got out of control, and the federal government didn't have control of the border. And Arizonans got frustrated and angry, and every time they looked around they, you know, saw emergency rooms that were packed and classrooms that were overcrowded and services that were being diluted because of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants crossing through the state. So they felt they had to act.
MONTAGNE: Now what is the state doing now that a federal program putting National Guard troops on the border has ended? You and a couple of other governors were very unhappy about that. It's been a couple of weeks since this National Guard program has ended. Have you seen a jump in illegal crossings?
Gov. NAPOLITANO: Not quite yet. It's a little too soon, but we're watching the numbers very, very carefully because the National Guard were very useful at the border, and I, along with Governor Richardson of New Mexico, were the first the governors in the country to say put the National Guard down there to back up the border patrol at federal expense.
Part of the problem we have is that so many of these immigration-related expenses have been coming out of our state taxpayer dollars, as opposed to the federal government, where they're supposed to come from. And anyway, so they did put the Guard down these at federal expense, and it was working.
They participated in almost 200,000 apprehensions. They seized vehicles. They helped build walls. They helped build roads along the border. They set a deadline when they started it, and unlike any other deadline the federal government has set in the immigration world, they decided to keep it, even though all the other things that were supposed to happen in the interim have not happened, like full staffing of the border patrols.
MONTAGNE: But the number is higher than it was a couple of years ago.
Gov. NAPOLITANO: Right. But the number a couple of years ago was way too low. You know, when your apprehensions are a quarter of a million to 300,000 a year, you know you've got an issue with a border that is not secure.
MONTAGNE: You want to start a guest-worker program for Arizona, a pilot program run by the state similar to the one that many people are familiar with run by the federal government. How would that work if it were run by the state?
Gov. NAPOLITANO: Well, we would, for example, certify the labor shortages necessary. We would provide the permits to the employers. I have to tell you, even though we have talked about this with the secretary of labor, we're not getting anywhere on this. So I think, you know, it's a moot issue at this point. But it does point to the larger issue, which is that the Congress and the administration have kind of said, you know what? We're just not going to be able to deal with immigration between now and the election, and I don't think any of us anticipate that they will.
But come January, when you have a new administration and a new Congress back in place, they're going to have to deal with immigration as a labor issue, as well as a criminal-law issue, and they're going to have to deal with visa reform and streamlined visas, really dealing with kind of the impetus that's causing these huge numbers of people to cross illegally through a very hot and rugged Arizona desert into the United States.
MONTAGNE: Janet Napolitano is the Democratic governor of Arizona, speaking to us from her office in Phoenix. Thank you for joining us.
Gov. NAPOLITANO: Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.