Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.
San Diego, California (CNN) -- On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gave a remarkable speech at the University of Texas at El Paso on immigration and border security. It was the kind of address where you take the good with the bad.
The "good" is that, in some parts, the speech was refreshingly courageous and honest about the deplorable scare tactics cynical politicians use to gin up public support. The "bad" is that the speech also showed chutzpah, and worked only if one had a short memory about the kind of president that Barack Obama promised to be when he was seeking support from Latinos to get elected.
Napolitano accused elected officials (read: Republicans) of overstating the threat of crime and illegal-immigrant crossings along the border to "score political points." And she slammed opponents for "misstating the facts and unfairly politicizing border issues" and urged all public officials to "be honest with the people we serve."
Bravo. You tell 'em, Madame Secretary. Napolitano is absolutely right that politicians (read: Republicans) are cruelly exploiting people's fears about the border for their own benefit. It happens in Congress, where uninformed lawmakers either demagogue the immigration debate or cheapen it with simple "enforcement only" solutions to a complicated problem.
Napolitano is also right about critics misstating facts. Despite the perception that crime along the U.S.-Mexico border is out of control, she said, FBI statistics show that violent crime rates in Southwest border counties are down 30% over the last two decades and are "among the lowest in the nation."
Recently, I was on the phone with an old friend and former journalist who has studied border security issues all over the world for more than a decade. He too insists that claims of rampant border violence on the U.S. side are the stuff of legend.
He explained that Mexican cartels are comfortable doing business on the Mexico side, where they can buy off or scare off law enforcement. But they're not eager to open up a satellite office on this side of the border, where they can be caught and pressured to flip on their associates -- something that would buy them a death sentence. So they use drug mules, and keep the violence on the U.S. side to a minimum.
That makes sense -- a lot more sense than the claims by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (which she later recanted) that authorities had found beheaded bodies in the desert. Brewer seemed to suggest that drug cartels were smuggling illegal immigrants into Arizona and then beheading them once they got there.
The scare tactics that Napolitano talked about aren't just meant to score political points. They are also intended to scare up public support for restrictive immigration policies intended to reverse the demographic changes of the last 20 years and give Americans what they want: a way to magically return their communities to the "Mayberry" of their youth.
By the way, good luck with that. In the Mayberry I remember, kids did chores for their allowance and teenagers had after-school jobs. Today, they spend their free time playing video games and posting on Facebook, helping to create the labor vacuum that winds up being filled by illegal immigrants.
But then, in her El Paso speech, unfortunately, Napolitano went off the rails. Put on the defensive by outlandish accusations that her department has been asleep at the switch on border security, Napolitano overcompensated and bragged about something that has stirred more criticism -- this time, from immigrant activists on the left: the administration's record number of deportations.
In the last two years, the Homeland Security Department has deported 779,000 illegal immigrants, she said. That is, Napolitano assured her audience, more "than ever before."
Personally, as a pro-enforcement advocate for comprehensive immigration reform who supports deportations when appropriate, I have no problem with that. But many on the left -- particularly many Latino Democrats -- see the issue differently. They're quietly fuming that the Obama administration is gung-ho on deporting illegal immigrants. And you can bet they did not appreciate Napolitano wearing those deportations as a badge of honor.
This is probably not what these folks expected in July 2008 when Obama addressed the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza. He marketed himself then as a kinder and gentler leader when he said things like this:
"The system isn't working when 12 million people live in hiding ... when communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing. When all that's happening, the system just isn't working."
Americans have the right to ask: Is the system working any better now? And now that Obama presides over an administration that is doing much the same thing that he used to condemn, is this what Napolitano meant by being "honest with the people we serve?"
If you're going to criticize people for playing politics with immigration and border security, it is best not to do the same.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.