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Border Troubles Divide U.S., States

Times Staff Writer

The decision by the governors of Arizona and New Mexico to declare states of emergency along their troubled borders with Mexico has embarrassed the Department of Homeland Security, which scrambled Wednesday to defend itself from charges that it wasn’t doing enough to combat the crime and violence associated with drug smuggling and illegal immigration.

The unusual action by two Democratic governors and the Bush administration’s response reflected the political tensions that surround the nation’s conflicting attitudes toward border control.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger expressed support for the actions of his neighboring governors. He said California did not need to declare its own border emergency at the moment but that he would consider it if conditions changed.

Last Friday, responding to pressure from border communities, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson declared an emergency in four counties that he said had been “devastated by the ravages and terror of human smuggling, drug smuggling, kidnapping, murder, destruction of property and death of livestock.” On Monday, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano followed suit in four counties, declaring through a spokeswoman that the federal government “has not done what it needs to do and has promised to do” to deal with the problem.

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Schwarzenegger said he supported Richardson and Napolitano’s actions. “Right now, we are having the things somewhat under control, so there was no reason for it yet,” he said Wednesday during an interview on San Diego radio station KFMB. “But if there is a reason for it, we definitely will do that.”

Schwarzenegger called the state of emergency “a terrific idea” and said the nation must do more to secure its borders.

Rejecting criticism of its work, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said the problems that Richardson and Napolitano cited were the result of successfully enforcing border laws elsewhere.

Moreover, said the spokesman, Mario Villarreal, trouble in those relatively sparsely populated areas had been anticipated, and additional resources had been dispatched to deal with them.

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“This is one indication of gaining operational control of the border,” Villarreal said. An enforcement drive in the Tucson sector of Arizona has forced illegal immigrants to cross the border in the counties Napolitano had declared disaster areas, he said. The agency had expected immigrants to go there and “we had already permanently assigned an increase in staffing to those sectors,” he said.

The agency plans to boost staff 20% along the Arizona border this year and has doubled the patrol aircraft there, Villarreal said, and the El Paso sector, which covers all of New Mexico and part of Texas, will get 300 additional agents.

The Bush administration announced a new bilateral program with Mexico to prosecute human smugglers, called the Operation Against Smugglers Initiative on Safety and Security, although no money was earmarked for the program.

Some people were quick to accuse the governors of political maneuvering. Napolitano and Richardson face elections next year, and Richardson is thought to be considering a run for the presidency in 2008. The governor of Texas, a Republican, showed no sign of following his neighbors’ examples.

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“This is Janet-come-lately,” Arizona state Rep. Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa, said of Napolitano’s action. “I’m glad she’s finally waking up to the crisis. I wish it was more than pure politics.”

But there was no such partisan edge to the reactions of leading Republican members of Congress from the two states or from Schwarzenegger.

“I think that it was terrific that Gov. Richardson was the first one to announce this state of emergency, because first of all he’s Latino,” Schwarzenegger said. “So it was very clear -- because so many times when you make a move like that you’re considered immediately a racist.”

Schwarzenegger also suggested that other states -- including California -- might follow New Mexico and Arizona’s lead. “So we are talking about that right now, and if we see a need for that we will do definitely the same thing,” he said.

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Schwarzenegger’s comments come four months after the governor praised a campaign by a private group known as the Minutemen, which used armed volunteers to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border. He said then that the federal government wasn’t doing enough to secure the border.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has played a prominent role in Washington’s continuing battles over immigration policy, said: “It surprises me that [the governors] have waited this long.... It’s a dire situation in all of Arizona. The federal government has typically acted after the fact. Until we get a guest-worker program, any effort will be marginal.”

Flake said Washington’s efforts to boost the number of Border Patrol agents had failed. An intelligence bill in 2004 authorized 2,000 new border agents for the five years starting in 2006, but “not a dime reached Border Patrol; it was all spent in Washington,” he said. When President Bush signed the budget for fiscal year 2006, he authorized Customs and Border Protection to hire 210 additional agents.

“I think the governor’s approach was called for,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). “I find no fault with it, given the turmoil in these communities along the border. I’ve spoken with the governor and told him so. We’re finally to a boiling point.

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“But this step is not going to solve the problem either,” Domenici said. “It’s an interim step. What we need is an immigration policy. We need to put resources into enforcement, then have a plan for this huge drive of people to come over the border.”

Richardson’s declaration freed $750,000 from state coffers for Luna, Hidalgo, Grant and Dona Ana counties, and he pledged to provide $1 million more. Napolitano’s action will funnel an estimated $1.5 million to Pima, Cochise, Santa Cruz and Yuma counties.

For their part, officials in the counties designated as disaster areas brushed aside questions of politics. They expressed gratitude for the emergency funding. And they offered grim, sometimes grisly glimpses of the burdens -- economic, social and psychological -- that drug and immigrant smuggling impose on ill-equipped communities along the border.

Luna County, N.M., Undersheriff Raymond Cobos said: “It was pretty bold, pretty brave on the governor’s part.”

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Cobos indicated that what concerned him was not illegal immigration but the local problems that came with it, including deaths of would-be immigrants. “It’s intolerable to us that people die out here,” he said.

Also, he said, ranchers complain that illegal immigrants scare cattle away from watering holes. With groups of 20 or 30 immigrants there, “cattle stay away. It’s hot and dry; they stay away; their health fails. Ranchers are very frustrated. They’re not doing anything but ranching....

“We have ranchers with as much as a mile of border fence stolen. The feds say it’s the responsibility of the farmer to maintain the border fence.”

On a grimmer note, Pima County’s chief deputy administrator, Martin Willett, said his New Mexico office would ask for emergency money to pay for expansion of refrigeration space in the Pima morgue. Because of the death toll associated with smuggling and illegal immigration, he said, the county doubled the size of its morgue a year ago.

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But the 120-body-capacity unit is now inadequate. “We’re out of room,” Willett said. He plans to apply for $150,000 to double the space.

“Emergency doesn’t begin to describe the day-to-day reality of living in these four border counties,” Napolitano’s spokeswoman, Jeanine L’Ecuyer, said.

She said counties had indicated they would like to use the money to pay for such local expenses as enhanced police patrols, night vision goggles and overtime pay.

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Times staff writer Steven Bodzin contributed to this report.


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