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A U.S. Border Patrol agent scans the U.S.-Mexico border while on a bridge over the Rio Grande on March 13, 2017, in Roma, Texas.
In this busy border city, Customs and Border Protection agents are more than just faceless federal officers: They back up local sheriff’s deputies on dangerous calls, go on joint missions with police and even take part in local parades.
“I know there’s a lot of stigma out there against them, but here locally we’re very fond of them,” Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina said of Border Patrol agents. “They will tell you they can walk anywhere in their uniform and they won’t be frowned upon.”
That cozy relationship between local law enforcement and the Border Patrol in places such as Laredo may soon get even cozier under new Homeland Security guidelines. The rules, released Feb. 20, call for the hiring of 15,500 more immigration agents, including 5,500 Border Patrol personnel, and a series of other sweeping measures aimed at bolstering immigration enforcement, a cornerstone of President Trump’s campaign last year.
Among the new rules: The expansion of the 287(g) program, a volunteer program that deputizes local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law. The program has historically been the realm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which is responsible for tracking undocumented immigrants inside the U.S. But the new rules expand it to include the Border Patrol, whose agents work mainly on the border.
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A campaign sign from Trump/Pence stands on a dirt road near the U.S./Mexican border outside Eagle Pass, Texas on Feb 22, 2017
That was welcome news for some people on the border, who feel working closely with the Border Patrol is key to stamping out smugglers and illegal drug transports that pass through the area. Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar, who’s based in Laredo, said his department isn’t part of the 287(g) program and his deputies don’t perform immigration duties. But he welcomes closer cooperation with federal agents, he said.
“If we see they’re illegal, we call Border Patrol, and they do whatever they have to do with them,” Cuellar said. “We don’t know what kind of criminal agents we have on our hands, and I’m not just going to let them loose.”
But others warn that expanding 287(g) to the Border Patrol would in essence deputize local deputies and police officers to look for immigration violators, something they’re not trained to do, and could corrode trust between the community and its local police.
The program came under widespread criticism in 2011 when then-Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio reportedly used it to engage in widespread racial profiling and civil rights violations against Latinos. Homeland Security later rescinded its agreement with Maricopa County.
The 287(g) program, which mostly allows ICE agents to pick up undocumented immigrants wanted for serious crimes from local jails, was scaled back under President Obama. Under the new DHS rules, the Trump administration appears poised to ramp it back up and spread it to the border.
That’s problematic, given ongoing reports of rights violations by the Border Patrol, said Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law. “It would absolutely be an issue,” she said. “To take an agency that’s already pretty troubled and under scrutiny and give them the authority to get local agents who are untrained and inexperienced in immigration enforcement is ill-advised.”
Since Trump’s election, the extent that local law enforcement officers should cooperate with federal immigration agencies has been a hotly debated topic in Texas and across the U.S.
Sheriffs in Austin and Houston, as well as police in some border towns such as El Paso, have opted out of the program, earning the ire of Gov. Greg Abbott and other state Republican leaders, who maintain local leaders have a responsibility to assist ICE and the Border Patrol in capturing undocumented migrants with criminal records. Texas lawmakers are considering a bill that would punish so-called “sanctuary cities” — those that refuse to comply with requests from federal immigration agencies — by cutting state funding.
On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions re-urged sanctuary cities to comply with federal requests or risk losing billions of dollars in federal funding.
“Such policies cannot continue,” Sessions said from the White House. “They make our nation less safe by putting dangerous criminals back on our streets.”
© Rick Jervis, USA Today
Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina, based in the border city of Laredo, is against a wall in his section of the border but favors closer cooperation between the Border Patrol and local law enforcement. New federal rules will make it easier for locals and federal immigration agents to work closer together.
But pro-immigrant activists claim putting federal immigration decision-making in the hands of locals make cities less safe. Besides the risk of having Latinos profiled by ill-trained local police officers, the 287(g) program drives a wedge between residents, many of whom may know an undocumented immigrant, and the police, said Abraham Espinosa, a Houston-based immigrant advocate.
“There’s less people reporting crime because they’re afraid to approach their local police,” he said “Ultimately, it doesn’t make us safe. It makes us unsafe.”
Cuellar, the Webb County sheriff, said his deputies already work closely with Border Patrol agents under Operation Stonegarden, a federal initiative aimed at stopping unauthorized crossings and drug transports. The department receives about $3.4 million a year for participating, a sum Cuellar shares with constables, airport police and other local agencies who help out.
That close cooperation paid off last week when his deputies arrested a suspect after a high-speed chase. The suspect, lacking proper immigration documents, was handed over to the Border Patrol, and later identified as being wanted for murder in Dallas.
With Webb County deputies running into undocumented migrants nearly every day, close Border Patrol cooperation is invaluable, Cuellar said.
“I’m not going to let any criminals leave my jail and commit another homicide or burglary,” he said. “We’re here to uphold the law.”