Feb. 10, 2006, 8:54AM
Ariz. Weighs Options for Border Patrol

By JACQUES BILLEAUD Associated Press Writer
© 2006 The Associated Press

PHOENIX — As public frustration grows over the state's porous border with Mexico, the once-rejected notion of using state police to supplement federal patrols is gaining traction.

One state lawmaker's plan includes $20 million for the Arizona Department of Public Safety to run a 100-member squad to operate surveillance equipment, construct border barriers, target drug and immigrant smugglers and perhaps patrol the border.

"I'm not putting the handcuffs on. Whatever they need to do, they need to be doing," said Republican Rep. Russell Pearce, the plan's sponsor.

Another proposal by Gov. Janet Napolitano would have two state police squads focus on immigrant smuggling cases. Both plans also offer millions of dollars to communities to tackle illegal immigration, and money for combating gang-related border crime.

Arizona has been dogged by a heavy flow of illegal immigrants since the government tightened enforcement in El Paso, Texas, and San Diego during the mid-1990s. The Border Patrol apprehended 725,093 illegal border crossers in Arizona in fiscal year 2000, though the numbers declined after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to an increase in border security.

State police in Arizona already keep an average of 27 officers near the border at any given time to assist federal authorities looking for fugitives and people attempting to take stolen vehicles into Mexico.

In the past, a few police agencies have won federal approval to train some state or local officers so they can arrest illegal immigrants, but the idea of major state border aid was often resisted by officials who believed that illegal immigration should be the sole province of the federal government.

Immigration analysts say few states are considering anything so bold. An effort underway in California would ask voters to create a state immigration police force. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday proposed shifting state officers to combat growing border violence, though he said border law enforcement remains a mainly federal responsibility.

Advocates for state and local action in Arizona said the idea will not cure the state's immigration headaches, but would discourage some people from sneaking across the border.

"If the federal government isn't going to do the job, and Arizona is footing billions of dollars a year for illegal aliens, it makes sense for the state to get involved," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limits on immigration.

Opponents say racial profiling could increase if officers unfamiliar with immigration law began trying to enforce it. They also say investigating crime in immigrant communities could become more difficult, because fewer migrants would cooperate with police for fear of being sent home. Local officers also lack understanding of complex immigration law, they say.

"I liken it to police officers pulling over people and asking for their tax returns," said Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research for the National Council of La Raza, a group that promotes Hispanic issues.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, whose jurisdiction includes 50 miles of border, said taking on illegal immigration would overwhelm his department, even if the state gave him money to catch and detain illegal immigrants. The Department of Public Safety and an organization that represents 950 of its employees declined to comment.

"If the federal government with all its financial resources is having headaches with this issue, imagine what a small entity with limited resources can do," Estrada said.

What Pearce's proposal won't do, one opponent says, is confront the central motive for workers to sneak into the country: the prospect of a better life. If the proposal works, it's only going to shift the flow of immigrants to other states, said Democratic Rep. Ben Miranda.
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