US fights a border-crime 'epidemic'

Law-enforcement agencies find new ways to coordinate their efforts to stem the rise of violence on the border with Mexico.

Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik expressed his frustration and made a plea for help after a fatal ambush of undocumented immigrants 25 miles south of Tucson last month.

Two illegal immigrants had just been killed and another injured during what was apparently a botched heist of a drug shipment. It turned out that the pickup truck attacked was transporting 23 illegal immigrants, not drugs, into the US.

"The violence associated with the problem of migration and narcotics ... has reached epidemic proportions," Mr. Dupnik told reporters on March 30. "If we had the money for the kinds of resources that we need, we could make a huge impact on border violence and crime."

As Congress debates a comprehensive immigration program that many say is the only way to deal with the smuggling problems and the violence that it entails, Dupnik's remarks show that those law-enforcement officers and agencies on the front lines are beginning to speak out, unite, and search for their own solutions.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for instance, recently sent a new special agent to lead Arizona's efforts.

"ICE is taking the lead in trying to consolidate the disparate and disjointed efforts – at least on the human smuggling side," says Alonzo Peña, special agent in charge of ICE for Arizona. "One of the initiatives I'm bringing forward with our state, local, and other federal partners is a system to better track and coordinate investigations and intelligence related to immigration in the state of Arizona."

Upon arrival in Phoenix last October, Mr. Peña was confronted with not only combating the highly sophisticated criminal organizations that smuggle more drugs and aliens into Arizona than any other state, but with building workable coalitions with local, state, and other federal law enforcement agencies.

So far, local officials have praised his efforts. He's now in the midst of implementing a three-tiered approach to bring other agencies on the same page and to leverage the resources of each agency so they can conduct more focused and collaborative operations.

Better law enforcement coordination

First, ICE is linking up with US Border Patrol and National Guard troops on Arizona's southern border to make sure the groups share intelligence and investigative efforts about smuggling networks.

Second, ICE is linking up with Phoenix metro area law-enforcement agencies in the central part of Arizona. That's where most of the leaders of the smuggling organizations are based, Peña says, along with the major fake document vendors and funding and support structures for the criminal organizations.

Third, ICE plans to work aggressively and cooperatively with the Arizona Department of Public Safety's interdiction units in combating over-the-road smuggling efforts north of Phoenix – so far, the weakest link in the chain, Peña says. Phoenix is the main hub for illegal immigrants to enter the US.

ICE already has begun entering into what are known as "287G agreements" with several local law-enforcement agencies. These agreements allow ICE officials to train and empower various law-enforcement officials to arrest illegal immigrants, which until recently wasn't possible. If a local sheriff, for example, stopped someone for a routine traffic violation and suspected the person was in the US illegally, the sheriff would have had to call either Border Patrol or ICE officials to make that determination. Now, those law-enforcement officials entering into the 287G agreements can make that determination and cite the individuals for illegal entry into the US.

So far, ICE has entered into 287G agreements with the Arizona Department of Corrections, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.

Last Wednesday, Sheriff Arpaio's Illegal Immigration Interdiction Strike Force, after stopping a van for a traffic violation, arrested two smugglers for transporting 17 illegal immigrants into Arizona.

"Arpaio's deputies and volunteer posse operations have arrested 523 illegals under the state human smuggling law and 71 under federal immigration law," says a statement from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.

Controversial arrests

Although Arpaio's arrests are controversial here, Peña says his office is discussing implementing more 287G agreements with the Phoenix Police Department and with the sheriffs' offices in two other border counties, Pima and Santa Cruz.

Pima County Sheriff Dupnik's counterpart in Yuma, Sheriff Ralph Ogden, is also on the front line battling increased border violence, and they've banded together in a consortium of 28 border sheriffs who meet to share common concerns, best practices, and collectively lobby their congressional leaders and other federal government officials for more attention and help.

Ogden and 14 of his colleagues in the coalition, for example, met Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in Washington Tuesday. All 28 members plan to meet in May in San Diego.

But some experts don't see law enforcement as the sole solution.

"The increased enforcement has come with significantly increased costs, both in terms of what this country is spending at the border for agents and Guard troops, and also in terms of human costs for crossers," says Luis Cabrera, a political scientist at Arizona State University. "As possible routes dwindle and are in more remote terrain, crossers continue to die in high numbers. They are easier prey for border gangs, and they may be more susceptible to kidnapping or extortion."

Mr. Cabrera goes on to say that Congress should consider all these factors as it debates immigration reform. "It's not realistic to say that there should be no enforcement," he says. "But we should take a hard look at an overall border policy that exacts such a toll on individuals without basic criminal intent who, in the big picture, are important to many sectors of the US economy."

Nestor Rodriguez, a sociologist at the University of Houston and an expert on immigration issues, agrees.

"What may reduce it is a new immigration policy that incorporates legally a significant number of immigrant workers that already participate in our labor force but in extra-legal manners," Professor Rodriguez says. "When more migrant workers can enter legally, the use of smugglers may decline significantly."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Part I of this series ran Tuesday.

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