Seeking to soothe the increasingly tense border situation, Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) met with Latino leaders Friday morning to discuss their complaints about U.S. border agencies, and then referred their concerns to federal officials in a series of afternoon meetings.
Border hostilities have been intensified by the recent shooting of a 12-year-old Mexican boy by a Border Patrol agent and Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller’s decision not to prosecute the agent. Friday’s meetings were prompted by a request from Miller’s office to make the prosecution of Border Patrol agents a federal, instead of local, responsibility.
At his Chula Vista office, Bates told representatives of the Chicano Federation, the Coalition for Law and Justice, the Chicano Democratic Club and the Mexican-American Business Assn. about legislation he introduced Thursday to permit federal prosecution of crimes by Border Patrol agents.
But while those at the meeting generally supported Bates’ bill --which the congressman said has a “50-50" chance of passing--they stressed that the roots of the border conflict lie much deeper.
“We think it’s been a long time coming,” said Roberto Martinez, chairman of the Coalition for Law and Justice. “This was just one in a long series of shootings and beatings that have been going on. There’s been an escalation of violence along the border. We’re not just talking about border bandits, but Border Patrol agents.”
Bates acknowledged that the bill was not a panacea, saying, “It just allows for federal review. It doesn’t change the bottom line.”
However, the “bottom line” of border violence was a major concern of the Latino leaders. Martinez said that Border Patrol agents’ excesses are often excused because of the belief by U.S. officials that aggressive policing of undocumented aliens is necessary to keep this country from losing control of its borders.
“What they’ve lost control of is their Border Patrol,” Martinez said. He called for a change in attitudes by all U.S. agencies that police the border.
Bates said that “attitude is a problem on both sides,” and said he discouraged finger-pointing by either side.
“I’m trying to get away from confrontation,” he said. “I’m past trying to work out who’s good and who’s bad. (The bill) is not a pro-Border Patrol or anti-Border Patrol statement.”
Bates met Friday with Chief Agent Alan Eliason of the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol, whom he said defended the actions of his agents, stressing the violence of the border region.
“It’s an expected response,” Bates said. “There are a lot of incidents. Sometimes these things happen.”
Nonetheless, Bates said the Border Patrol, the U.S. Customs Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are all committed to smoothing the strained relations between American and Mexican agencies. Although both sides expressed good intentions to resolve their differences, Bates said solving the border problems will be a long and difficult process.
“Immediately, we just want to calm things down,” Bates said. “The first thing we’re trying to do is to meet with all the parties, talk out some of the problems, and get some recommendations.”
Bates said meetings will be scheduled to “initiate a dialogue” between government agencies from the two nations, adding that both sides would have to cooperate if the situation is to improve.