Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Arizona Declares Border Emergency

Gov. Janet Napolitano has followed the lead of her New Mexico counterpart

PHOENIX - Gov. Janet Napolitano on Monday declared a state of emergency along Arizona's border with Mexico, freeing up $1.5 million in disaster funds to help border counties combat booming illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

Napolitano criticized the federal government for "moving too slow" on border security, evolving into a hot-button, election-year issue in Arizona and across the country.

"This is a federal responsibility, and they're not meeting it," Napolitano said. "I've just come to the conclusion (that) we've got to do what we can at the state level until the federal government picks up the pace."

Napolitano's announcement came three days after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson issued a similar declaration, complaining that the federal government has failed to stem growing smuggling-related violence to the east of Arizona, an increasingly popular illegal immigration corridor. Both governors are Democrats.

The money in Arizona is designated for the state's four border counties - Yuma, Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise - and will be distributed by the Arizona Division of Emergency Management. The $1.5 million is part of $4 million set aside annually for disasters, such as fires or floods.

Politicians and law enforcement officials in those counties said the money is sorely needed. The state is the busiest illegal crossing spot along the entire Southwestern border.

The declaration is the first time Napolitano has tapped the funds for border issues.

And it comes at a time when federal lawmakers, including some from Arizona, and the Bush administration are pushing a series of immigration reform bills and proposals.

Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl have introduced starkly different bills. Kyl's bill would authorize 10,000 new Border Patrol agents and require millions of undocumented immigrants to return to their home countries after five years. The McCain bill would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States if they pay a fine and participate in a guest-worker program.

The long-running battle over securing the U.S.-Mexican border is expected to be a key issue in next year's midterm elections, both nationally and at the state level.

Arizona border counties will be eligible to apply for state money for a wide range of costs, from repairing border fences to paying for overtime for local law enforcement agencies dealing with smuggling-related crime.

State Rep. Russell Pearce, a Republican, accused Napolitano of bowing to public and political pressure.

"This governor clearly is very good at reading polls," Pearce said. "It's a start, but much more has to be done.... This nation is under siege."

Since Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year, U.S. Border Patrol in the Yuma and Tucson sectors reported more than 510,000 arrests, an average of about 1,616 a day, roughly on par with last year. The Border Patrol has reported a steep increase in assaults on agents patrolling in southern Arizona, including a June 30 shooting by masked gunmen with assault rifles that wounded two agents near Nogales, Ariz.

"For years, we've been dealing with international, federal issues at the border with little or no support from the government. We need resources down here," Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said. "We're the guys in the trenches, on the roads, out in the sticks. For too long, we've been raising little red flags, saying we need help, and nobody's paid attention."

His Sheriff's Department, which patrols about 50 miles of border outside Nogales, has a 31-year-old jail designed for 52 inmates but routinely holds 120. On Monday morning, 52 percent of the inmates were Mexican nationals accused of state or local crimes.

Rancher Larry Vance, 49, has lived in Cochise County in southeastern Arizona for more than 31 years. Illegal-immigration arrests peaked along the Southwestern border and in Arizona during 2000, and Vance reported his property was overrun to the point that he slept only two to three hours a night.

Things quieted down recently, Vance said, particularly since March, when the Border Patrol extended its steel fence farther west, past the boundary of his 20-acre property just north of the border.

"She's 10 years too late," Vance said of Napolitano's declaration. "Politicians don't get it. They still don't get it."

Robert Damon, chairman of the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors, said more is needed to offset the estimated $3 million that illegal immigration costs the county each year, but "any little bit helps."

Kevin Tunell, Yuma County director of public and legislative affairs, estimated illegal immigration costs the county $5 million to $6 million a year, much on jailing undocumented immigrants. "Illegal immigration has had a phenomenal impact on our yearly budget, so any money that comes to us is always welcomed to help plug the hole in the dike," he said

Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden said he hopes to use some of the money to pay for extra police patrols along the Colorado River that borders Mexico, which has become a haven for thieves who prey on undocumented immigrants.



At 11:10 AM, Blogger Gun-Toting Liberal said...

This is fantastic news! My hat's off to both Governors for taking a stance on this issue. Thanks for sharing.


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