By Bethany Rodgers
The Frederick News-Post
FREDERICK, Md. — In a Thursday briefing to county leaders, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said a "full deployment of military resources" to the U.S.-Mexico border is needed to address the illegal-immigration issues he witnessed during his recent trip to Texas.
On last week's fact-finding mission, Jenkins observed a processing center that sheltered scores of children who have crossed into America unlawfully. He got a bird's-eye view of the vast border area while flying in a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter. He even donned floatable body armor and boarded a 34-foot river patrol boat fitted with machine guns.
"It's really, really hard to believe you're in America," Jenkins told Frederick County commissioners during Thursday's meeting. "You feel like you're in a combat zone."
Jenkins spent about 20 minutes detailing his experience visiting McAllen, Texas, with several other sheriffs from around the nation. In the trip's aftermath, Jenkins said he and the other law enforcement leaders will formulate recommendations, which they hope the National Sheriffs' Association will present to federal decision-makers.
The challenge of policing the vast border region between the United States and Mexico became particularly clear to Jenkins during his visit. Securing the area would require "a full militarization of the border, from one end to the other," he said in an interview after his presentation.
Jenkins said he recognizes the humanitarian needs involved when families and children come across the border seeking safety and a better life. Though he wasn't allowed to speak with the children at the processing center, he said he was saddened to see them and hear officials describe the dangers they face when traveling to America.
But most of his comments stressed the public safety concerns raised by illegal immigration.
"We're being invaded by drug cartels, drug smugglers, human traffickers, people who are being victimized. The flow of heroin and marijuana into Texas, through the borders, Arizona and New Mexico, is overwhelming," Jenkins said.
These drugs make their way to Frederick County, as do gang members who have crossed the border unlawfully, he said. Jenkins highlighted the local impact to explain his participation in the visit, which has drawn criticism and attracted widespread media attention. In particular, critics have pointed out that the group's trip was funded by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization listed as an anti-immigration hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Jenkins said FAIR was not pushing an agenda during his visit, although a representative of the organization was traveling with the sheriffs. The itinerary for the trip was crafted by two of the participating sheriffs, not by FAIR, he added. He also noted during his presentation that Frederick County taxpayers did not pay for his travel.
But Brian Schmitt, an immigration lawyer and member of the Frederick Immigration Coalition, pointed out that Jenkins was still drawing a salary while on his two-day trip.
"The main focus of his duties is to ensure public safety," Schmitt said.
Militarizing the border is not a solution, since federal military forces cannot be used for domestic security operations, Schmitt said.
Moreover, the people now traveling into the U.S. are children, not criminals, he said.
"He (Jenkins) went down there to take a look at this humanitarian crisis, and for him to come back up here and say we're being invaded by gangs and drug cartels and coyotes is ludicrous," Schmitt said.
Jenkins has gained a reputation for being tough on illegal immigration. Under his leadership, the county has been the only jurisdiction in the state to participate in the federal 287(g) program, which authorizes correctional officers to enforce certain immigration laws. He also sits on the immigration and border subcommittee with the National Sheriffs' Association.
After hearing Jenkins' report, county commissioners thanked him for traveling to Texas.
"I am glad Sheriff Jenkins went. This is a national problem, and the sheriff has acquired a position of influence in the whole United States. I think he has the obligation to use this influence both for us and for the nation. So, we're proud of you for doing that," Commissioner Paul Smith said.
Jenkins urged those watching his presentation to press their congressional representatives to take action on immigration.
U.S. Rep. John Delaney said he agrees with Jenkins about the need for increased border security, adding that the recommendations of law enforcement leaders are helpful to members of Congress.
"I think it's great that the sheriff made the trip," Delaney, D-6th, said in a Thursday phone interview.
However, Delaney said providing more money and technological resources for securing the border is only one piece of immigration reform.
Federal leaders should also create a path to citizenship and tackle issues with visas and worker permitting.
Congress should also move swiftly on President Barack Obama's request for supplemental funding to deal with the current humanitarian crisis at the border, Delaney said. Officials must show compassion to the thousands of children who have fled to the U.S. to escape danger, he added.
"Some are in situations where sending them back amounts to certain death, and I think many of them should be designated as refugees," he said.
Karl Bickel, who is running against Jenkins for county sheriff, said the debate about immigration reform belongs with Delaney and others at the federal level and not with county officials. Jenkins should be more concerned about the heroin traveling to Frederick from Baltimore than about drugs trafficked across the Mexico border, he said.
In Bickel's opinion, Jenkins has exaggerated the presence of transnational gangs in Frederick County. But if anything, Jenkins' stance on immigration makes the problem worse, he argued.
"To the extent that there's going to be a gang presence, it's going to be in communities where the people are afraid to talk to the police because of his stance on immigration," Bickel said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2014 The Frederick News-Post