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Security plan worries officials in N.M. border town

Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, N.M.- President's Bush announcement that he wants to beef up enforcement of immigration laws was met with a weary sigh by the new police chief of this little border village.

More arrests mean more work for Chief Paul Armijo's four officers, who already pull more than 50 hours a week. Armijo himself hasn't had a day off in nearly two months.

Chief Paul A. Armijo stands in the doorway of the one room police headquarters for the small border town of Columbus, N.M., Thursday. Armijo worries that a plan to bolster border security in his small village will drain what little money he has to run his 4-officer department. (AP Photo/Alicia A. Caldwell)

"I have a 24-hour service with only four officers," Armijo said. "It's already hard."

Columbus is a town of about 1,800 people, right across the border from Palomas, Mexico. Officials are concerned about the impact an immigration crackdown could have on the town, saying it could reduce the money spent in its economy by visitors, both legal and illegal.

"It's going be like a slow strangulation," Columbus trustee Roberto Gutierrez said. "We're kind of like a welfare town. We don't have really anything and it's going to go away."

But Armijo's little police department would be the most strained. Officers are responsible for processing and jailing anyone federal agents arrest who has an open warrant or commits a local crime. And with the nearest jail more than 30 miles north in Deming, a single arrest can keep an officer out of town, burning expensive gas, for several hours.

Armijo says his annual budget of $180,000 can't withstand more than the handful of people already arrested weekly.

Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, visiting El Paso last week, said the federal government is trying to find extra money to help local departments. But unless that money is guaranteed to keep coming, Armijo said, he won't be able to hire new officers and outfit them with the necessary equipment.

Salaries for Armijo's officers are funded with a New Mexico state grant earmarked for border security. But that $175,000, which was supposed to last until 2008, is likely to run out in the next year, he said.

About $40,000 was spent on new cars and equipment. And $10,000 was given to the village's emergency management service, which Gutierrez said is likely to be in the red about $25,000 by the end of the fiscal year in June.

Gutierrez said the village just west of El Paso, the site of an incursion by Pancho Villa's army in 1916, is already bleeding money it doesn't have trying to provide basic services and respond to emergency and police calls.

"Everything is increasing except our budget and our ability to handle it," Gutierrez said.

Armijo said Bush hasn't thought enough about what his security plan will cost small towns.

"We're just one little border town," Armijo said. "We're just one of a few but we have less."

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