Troubling Tactics at the Border

The Clinton administration is right to focus its immigration control strategy right on the border, but its newly announced policy of using local police to assist the Border Patrol and continuing to deploy military personnel sends a confusing and troubling message.

The border is where violations of immigration laws can best be handled without interfering with the rights of U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. So the administration deserves credit for authorizing a record number of Border Patrol agents on the border.

The border control strategy announced last week appears to be motivated in part by election-year politics. It is understandable that President Clinton would want to impress Californians by looking tough on immigration just two months before the state’s primary election.


Nevertheless, the decision to field a mix of enforcement agencies creates potential problems. Illegal border crossings cannot be condoned, and those who sneak across must be sent back. But we know of too many cases of abuse by authorities: women raped and men beaten by Border Patrol agents. Who can the victims complain to if they see local police working hand in glove with federal agents?

North of the border, visions of the mixed force could chill relations between Latinos and police in cities like San Diego, Santa Ana and Los Angeles where local officers have tried to reassure Latinos that they are not immigration officers. Those efforts have led to illegal immigrants reporting crimes to local police without fear of immigration trouble.

At the border, the continued deployment of military personnel sends a negative message. Although the soldiers provide primarily surveillance, intelligence and communications support, they nevertheless are part of a military force. Any move that smacks of a militarization of the border revives unpleasant memories south of the international line.

The Justice Department should continue seeking ways to guard the nation’s boundaries, including increasing the number of Border Patrol agents. However, using local cops and soldiers may only create confusion for both the enforcers and the border crossers. Let the immigration agency professionals do their jobs.