States Act On Immigration Issue

AZ Central

In Texas, sheriffs are banding together to guard the U.S.-Mexican border using state money instead of calling for the Border Patrol.

In Alabama, state troopers check drivers against immigration databases when they make traffic stops on the highway.

And state lawmakers from Georgia to New York have considered making employment of undocumented immigrants a state crime, as well as a federal one.

Even as Congress debates immigration reform and border security, state and local governments are proceeding with their own plans to deal with illegal immigration. They are tired of waiting for the federal help that they say is too slow to come.

Border states such as Arizona, where Gov. Janet Napolitano and state lawmakers are battling over deploying the National Guard to the border, are leading the way in using their own resources on immigration. The most heavily trafficked state for illegal immigration, Arizona was the site of more than half of the 1.1 million arrests the Border Patrol made in fiscal 2004.

Like Napolitano in Arizona, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has declared an emergency along his state’s border.

But as undocumented workers and their families crowd hospitals, schools and neighborhoods all around the country, other states are moving to deal with what always has been considered a federal problem, filling what many officials say is a void in federal leadership.

‘The American people are concerned about immigration,’ said Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group that supports comprehensive federal immigration reform. ‘I think they’re mainly concerned that there seems to be nobody in charge.’

Though protecting the borders is mostly a federal task, political pressure is mounting on state and local leaders to address immigration, as well. So states are trying a range of tactics.

In Arizona, Napolitano has proposed sending the National Guard to the border to back up federal agents, though she wants the Pentagon to reimburse the state for the cost. Bills in the state Legislature would enlist local police to track undocumented immigrants in their communities, a move that many immigrant advocates say could jeopardize safety by discouraging migrants from reporting crimes against them.

In Texas, sheriffs departments in border counties can tap state funds to pay overtime for deputies to patrol near the line with Mexico. Texas border sheriffs went to Washington, D.C., recently to lobby for more federal agents, as well as more money to give states flexibility to try similar programs.

Some states, counties and cities have signed agreements with federal authorities to become, in essence, deputized immigration-enforcement agents. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has trained state police officers and sheriffs deputies in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina and California, as well as the Arizona Department of Corrections, to investigate whether prisoners held on other charges are undocumented immigrants.

‘Troopers, in the course of their regular jobs, were encountering situations that they were not equipped to deal with,’ said Martha Earnhardt, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Public Safety, where 44 state troopers have been trained in immigration enforcement by ICE agents since 2003.

The state started the program mostly because ICE had only one full-time agent posted there. Since then, Alabama troopers have made more than 160 arrests on immigration charges.

Most state and local agencies have resisted doing worksite raids or sweeping enforcement actions designed to catch undocumented immigrants, preferring to arrest people when they find them in the course of doing their regular work.

‘We’re not going to the migrant camps or to where they’re harvesting vegetables and checking everybody’s documents,’ said Mark Zadra, chief of statewide intelligence for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where troopers have focused their immigration enforcement on finding potential terrorists. ‘When you have illegal aliens that are in your community, they are often victims of crimes themselves, because people take advantage of them. . . . If someone is here illegally and they’re a victim, we did not want them to feel that they couldn’t come to law enforcement and report it.’

Federal officials have mostly stayed out of the state debates over policy, though they have encouraged governments to sign agreements like the one with Alabama.

ICE Director Julie Myers said in a recent interview that she couldn’t say whether Arizona should go ahead with plans to get local police more involved in immigration enforcement.

‘I can certainly understand the frustration at the state level for the immense problems that we’re seeing, and I do think a solution to these problems is going to require all of our efforts and all of our thinking,’ she said.

‘I’m not really in a position to say whether or not that particular proposal is a good idea or not for the people of Arizona.’

Some members of Congress, though, would like to see the states doing even more, with federal financing. Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., has proposed setting up state units that would work with federal and local authorities to add manpower near the border.

In Arizona alone, he envisions 5,000 to 10,000 people in the unit at a cost of as much as $50 million to train and deploy them.

‘The federal government is not getting the job done,’ Renzi said. ‘In order to extend the kind of manpower we need fast enough, we’ve got to go to the states.’

Leave a Reply