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U.S. Responds to Governors’ Illegal Immigration Appeals

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Times Staff Writer

Responding to protests from state leaders in the Southwest, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has offered tighter coordination between federal agencies and police in Arizona and New Mexico to deal with problems caused by illegal immigration.

He sent a letter to Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano on Monday accepting her offer of state police officers to help federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents quickly deport undocumented immigrants.

Chertoff agreed to work with state police as they “target the violent human smuggling trade.”

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Pati Urias, a spokeswoman for Napolitano, said Tuesday that the letter was a response to three offers from the governor since the beginning of July.

“It’s good to see that they’re starting to move,” Urias said.

Chertoff called New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Tuesday to assure him that the Bush administration would work with state officials toward stemming the tide of illegal immigrants.

Richardson said in an interview that Chertoff told him Congress would authorize an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents, a number of whom would go to the understaffed New Mexico border.

The border also would receive enhanced technology such as infrared cameras, Richardson said.

“I felt for the first time that the Homeland Security Department is listening to New Mexico,” Richardson said.

“We’re very seriously undermanned in the very porous New Mexico border.”

The more conciliatory statements from the two Democratic governors followed weeks of growing impatience as they awaited a federal response. In a letter Aug. 11, Napolitano wrote, “I am increasingly disappointed by the red tape my staff has encountered within the Dept. of Homeland Security.... ICE representatives said they are unwilling to enter into a memorandum of understanding with our state to enforce immigration laws.”

Last week, both governors declared states of emergency for counties along their states’ borders with Mexico. Local authorities said they needed emergency money to deal with situations as diverse as goading cattle back to watering holes frequented by migrants and storing bodies after smugglers’ vans crash on the highway.

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen said that the moves this week did not represent a significant shift in policy.

The increased federal manpower for New Mexico was already in the works, Agen said, and the “Tucson corridor” has been the agency’s top priority for immigration enforcement for more than a year.

“Saying we haven’t been doing anything there is a little off, since our major initiative is in Arizona,” Agen said.

“With so much force in Tucson sector, we’ve anticipated people trying to get in either through New Mexico or through the Yuma area of Arizona. So we’ve shifted and put more resources in those areas in particular.”

The most public element of Chertoff’s plans for cooperation, as outlined in his letter to Napolitano, is that the “Border Patrol will invite [state police] to provide officers to work with them” to set up checkpoints on interstate highways and participate in “roving patrols.”

This move appears to be a response to Napolitano’s offer of 12 full-time state police officers to work side by side with Border Patrol agents.

That strategy set off alarm bells with Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, an immigrant rights group on the Arizona-Mexico border.

“Police and sheriff’s departments across the country have been vocal against blurring the lines between themselves and immigration officers,” Allen said.

“People will be afraid to call in and report domestic violence or crimes, for fear that police will also ask about their immigration status.”

Chertoff invited Arizona state police to send a full-time liaison to the Tucson office of the Border Patrol and to the Phoenix office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He invited four state police officers to join customs enforcement’s Human Trafficking Task Force.

He promised to work with Napolitano on her offer of state police to transport detainees so that Border Patrol agents would be freed “to perform line detection and apprehension responsibilities that maximize use of their specialized training.”

This summer, Chertoff offered training for Arizona prison guards so they could help customs enforcement agents speed up the paperwork for deportations.

Arizona has said it could provide additional detention space for illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. Chertoff accepted that offer, noting that the additional beds would allow the customs agency to deport an additional 1,200 immigrants per year.

For all the improved law enforcement cooperation, said Allen, of the Border Action Network, increased law enforcement would do nothing to improve the situation so long as people were still driven to leave their homes and pursue better lives in the United States.

“As the Border Patrol has pursued its Southwest border strategy, we have seen more people die,” Allen said. “Smugglers get more violent as the stakes get higher.”

Caroline Isaacs, who as director of the Arizona office of the American Friends Service Committee works on behalf of immigrant rights, said Napolitano’s efforts were political.

“To get elected in a very Republican state, Napolitano has had to play the classic tough on crime card,” Isaacs said. “But now the population to demonize is immigrants.”

Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.


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