PHOENIX- Lawmakers are considering an aggressive approach for trying to lessen Arizona's role as the busiest gateway for sneaking into the country: devoting squads of the state police to catch illegal immigrants who slip past federal border agents.
Over the years, many officials have resisted suggestions for local and state police agencies to confront illegal immigration, long considered the sole province of the federal government. But the notion is gaining political traction as the public's frustration with the state's porous border with Mexico grows.
A state lawmaker has proposed a plan that includes $20 million (euro16.5 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 of Mesa, sponsor of the proposal.
A different plan by Gov. Janet Napolitano would include two state police squads to focus on immigrant smuggling cases and, like the other proposal, would provide money for combating gang-related border crime. Both plans also would offer millions of dollars to communities to tackle illegal immigration.
State lawmakers offered mixed predictions on whether the proposals would succeed. Even so, public pressure is mounting for state politicians who face re-election races this year to confront illegal immigration in Arizona, a hub for smugglers who transport immigrants across the country.
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 fell off after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted heightened border security.
State police in Arizona already work near the border, though their role is more limited than is now being proposed. An average of 27 state police officers are near the border at any given time, assisting federal authorities in looking for fugitives trying to leave the country and people attempting to bring ill-gotten cash and stolen vehicles into Mexico.
In the past, a few police agencies have won federal approval to train a limited number of state or local officers so they can arrest illegal immigrants. But immigration analysts said the only other state considering the bolder moves now being proposed in Arizona is California, where an effort is underway to get voters to decide whether to create a state immigration police force.
Analysts said similar proposals might crop up in other states if the federal government fails to overhaul the country's broken immigration system.
Advocates for state and local action said the idea won't fix Arizona's vast immigration problems, 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.
While Pearce said state and local police already have the authority to enforce immigration law, opponents said such local action could face constitutional problems and that local officers lack training in the complexities of immigration law.
"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.
The possibility of racial profiling could increase if local and state police unfamiliar with immigration law were to try to enforce it, opponents said.
It would make it harder for officers to maintain trust and investigate violent crime in immigrant communities, because fewer migrants would cooperate for fear of being sent back home, opponents said.
Pearce's proposal also would create a commission to hand out $15 million (euro12.4 million) to communities to pay for detaining illegal immigrants and another $15 million (euro12.4 million) for local police to hire 100 officers to focus on border security.
The grants would be denied to cities that discourage police from inquiring about people's immigration status.
As part of her larger immigration plan, Napolitano has asked the Legislature for more than $6 million (euro4.97 million) to augment the state police's border efforts. She also has proposed giving more $70 million (euro58 million) to help communities confront illegal immigration and offset some of its costs.
Democratic Rep. Ben Miranda of Phoenix said Pearce's proposal would be a waste of money because it would never confront the central motive for workers to sneak into the country: the prospect of a better life.
"We are not helping ourselves when we take on the duties of the federal government," Miranda said.
The door for local police to take on illegal immigration was opened last year when the Legislature created the state crime of immigrant smuggling. The law didn't provide any money to target smugglers and has produced a small number of cases. In a few cases, prosecutors said witnesses were sent back across the border by federal authorities before local investigations were completed.
The Department of Public Safety and a group representing 950 of its employees declined to comment on the details of the proposed border squads.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, whose jurisdiction includes 50 miles (80 kilometers) of border, said taking on illegal immigration would overwhelm his department, even if the state gave him money to catch and detain illegal immigrants.
"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.
Pearce said his proposal will help reverse the federal government's practice of sometimes apprehending immigrants and promptly sending them back across the border without formal proceedings.
Miranda said the practice may continue even if state or local police turn over border-crossers to federal officials for deportation, because the federal government lacks enough space in detention centers to hold all illegal border-crossers who are caught.
If the proposal works as it's supposed to, it's only going to shift the flow of immigrants to other states, Miranda said.
"Well, California and Texas have shifted it to us," Pearce said. "The reason for that is that they have gotten tougher where they had their major entries."