By JACQUES BILLEAUD
Associated Press Writer
PHOENIX- Arizona has long been one of the busiest gateways for immigrants trying to sneak into the country, and some lawmakers believe it's time to dispatch state police squads to catch illegals who slip past border agents.The notion is gaining political traction as the public's frustration about the state's porous border with Mexico grows. Over the years, it was often resisted by officials who claimed illegal immigration should be the sole province of the federal government.
A state lawmaker has proposed a plan that 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.
A different plan by Gov. Janet Napolitano would have two state police squads focus on immigrant smuggling cases. Both plans 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 prompted heightened border security.
State police in Arizona already work near the border. 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 won federal approval to train some state or local officers so they can arrest illegal immigrants. But immigration analysts said the only other state considering bolder moves is California, where an effort is underway to get voters to decide whether to create a state immigration police force.
Advocates for state and local action said the idea will not 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.
Opponents say racial profiling could increase if officers unfamiliar with immigration law were to try and enforce it. They also say it could make investigating crime harder in immigrant communities, 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.
"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."
On the Net:
Arizona Legislature: http://www.azleg.gov