Border Enforcement

Border Patrol agents have an unofficial adage about the undocumented immigrants they see crossing illegally into the United States. For each one they catch, they say, three more make it through unscathed.

The agents aren't to blame, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council. With so many migrants desperate for better lives, the tide of humanity simply overwhelms the agents.

"Blame our system," Bonner said. "Blame our system that allows people to cross the border and get jobs here."

Once undocumented immigrants are in the country, the story changes. Since the vast majority of the Border Patrol's resources are directly along the United States' international borders, the question arises: Who's enforcing immigration law in the nation's interior?

The answer, in many ways, is no one.

Organizational changes that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks fractured the federal government's immigration responsibilities among several different agencies. Additionally, the diversity, geographic distribution and sheer number of illegal immigrants already here makes any effort at simply rounding them up next to impossible.

Just a few thousand officers work for the agency charged with deporting criminal aliens, compared to estimates of 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. And those immigrants have support networks made up of friends, family and advocacy groups that help them find work and avoid capture.

Faced with the often negative consequences of massive illegal immigration -- unlicensed drivers on the road, employers violating minimum wage requirements, uninsured patients using emergency rooms -- some local law enforcement agencies are taking up the mantle of enforcing immigration law themselves.

Until recently, that step was all but unheard of. But many officials who've taken up enforcement offer the same explanation why: The federal government isn't doing enough, and someone's got to pick up the slack.

Focus on criminals

Immigration enforcement in the nation's interior is the responsibility of Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- one of three agencies created from the ashes of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was abolished in 2003.

While the INS was involved in finding illegal immigrants of all stripes, ICE's focus is on criminal aliens. The agency's programs include deporting immigrant sex offenders, finding undocumented employees at sensitive workplaces, and working against human smuggling, money laundering, document fraud and other international crimes. ICE also includes some functions tangential to immigration, such as the Federal Protective Service, which handles security at government buildings.

ICE is in the midst of an ambitious effort dubbed Endgame, which has as its goal the deportation of all "removable aliens" in the United States by 2012.

A removable alien is, theoretically, anyone who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visa. But in practice, ICE's Detention and Removal Office focuses mostly on those who have committed crimes or been ordered deported by an immigration judge.

ICE's various enforcement efforts -- with names like Operation Predator, ICE Storm and No Safe Haven -- have been successful at targeting criminal aliens. Thousands of sex offenders, weapons smugglers and human traffickers have been arrested and deported in the two years since ICE was formed. Additionally, marriage scams to help immigrants obtain illicit green cards, and DMV workers offering licenses in exchange for bribes, also have been exposed.

But deporting every illegal immigrant in the country is next to impossible, as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October. "It would take billions and billions and billions of dollars to do it," he said.

The current removal efforts are minuscule compared with the total number of illegals here. ICE removed roughly 200,000 immigrants in fiscal 2003, and the same number in 2004. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the total number of undocumented immigrants in the United States at close to 11 million.

At least one study found the total might be so high partly because of relatively strict enforcement along the nation's borders. Princeton professor Douglas Massey says that when it's harder to cross the border into the United States, illegal immigrants who make it across are more likely to remain here longer, rather than risking multiple trips back and forth.

"Not only have U.S. policies failed to deter Mexicans from migrating to the United States, they have promoted a more rapid growth of the nation's undocumented population," Massey wrote in a study for the libertarian Cato Institute earlier this year.

For local police and sheriff's departments in border states, the situation presents a quandary. Many law enforcement agencies have standing policies that bar officers from inquiring about anyone's immigration status during the course of their regular duties.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has maintained such a policy since 1979. Then-Chief Daryl Gates believed undocumented immigrants wouldn't report crimes if they feared police could have them deported after doing so.

Now, however, the population of illegal immigrants has exploded, and some local agencies, believing the federal government has fallen down on the job of enforcing immigration law, are looking for ways to do it themselves.

Getting it done locally

San Bernardino County is one of three counties in California where officials are getting ICE training in how to check for deportable illegal immigrants in local jails. The federal agency performs jail checks on a regular basis, but not frequently enough to catch everyone, a spokeswoman said.

"The fact is, those facilities have significant turnover," said ICE's Virginia Kice. "Because of that, it's possible we are not identifying every deportable criminal alien going through those jails."

Los Angeles County has been participating in the program for several months, under ICE's supervision, and Riverside County plans to follow suit. San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod believes the program will save his jails close to $1 million each month.

Although illegal immigrants won't be deported immediately after they're identified, having an accurate accounting of how many undocumented aliens the counties have jailed will make it easier to get more money from the federal government, said Carolyn Bondoc, a financial manager for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

Federal reimbursements are available for local agencies that hold illegal immigrants in jails. Pending legislation would allocate $950 million for the program next year, though nationwide, such costs are estimated at $2 billion annually.

"There are more and more agencies that are applying for (federal) money," Bondoc said. "We're not getting full reimbursement -- not even half."

In Florida and Alabama, state police have reached agreements with ICE that go one step further. A handful of officers in both states have gone through training with ICE and become certified to enforce federal immigration laws, meaning they can arrest undocumented immigrants simply for being here illegally.

Officials said those officers aren't conducting raids on agricultural fields or labor camps, trying to root out anyone and everyone here illegally. They're mostly taking illegal immigrants encountered during the course of criminal investigations into custody themselves, instead of calling ICE and waiting for federal agents to respond, said E.J. Picolo of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Calling the program a success in his state, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican, wants to expand it throughout the country, because ICE's limited enforcement personnel can't possibly patrol all of the United States.

"There is no way those 2,000 officers can ever adequately patrol our streets for immigration violators and do a good job of handling these problems," Sessions said on the Senate floor this summer. "But we have 750,000 state and local law enforcement officers who are on our streets and in our communities every single day."

Overwhelming numbers

Even if they don't choose to enforce immigration law, local police and sheriff's departments are still dealing with the effects of weak borders.

Some illegal immigrants commit new crimes after entering the United States -- like trespassing on border ranches, stealing food or turning to prostitution to survive. Some commit more serious crimes, like sexual assault or murder. Others make easy targets for thieves and scam artists, since new immigrants often are afraid to contact authorities out of fear of deportation.

Rep. John Culberson, a Texas Republican, wants the Department of Homeland Security to cover the cost of hiring additional deputies for sheriff's departments in border towns. In his mind, local law enforcement agencies need more resources to deal with crimes caused by illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

The problem is acute in the Texas border town of Laredo, Culberson said, where drug cartels with superior firepower terrorize residents in the United States and Mexico.

"The sheriff and the local authorities are outgunned and overmatched," the congressman said on the House floor.

Culberson also has legislation pending that would allow the governor of any border state to create an armed citizens' militia empowered to prevent illegal border crossings.

In California, Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Murrieta, isn't waiting for that proposal to get off the ground. He's launched a signature drive for a ballot initiative that would create the California Border Police, a statewide law enforcement agency with immigration violators as its only focus.

"Quite simply, it's going to do what the federal government's not doing, and that is comprehensively enforce immigration laws in the state of California," Haynes said.

Haynes envisions a police force of up to 3,000 officers who work in the interior of the state, as well as at the border and other ports of entry.

The Border Police would cost millions to start up and operate. But Haynes said California would recoup its money, and then some, by no longer paying for services used by illegal immigrants, such as free public education or food stamps.

"We would basically have nine dollars in social welfare savings for every one dollar in costs of enforcement," estimated Haynes, who hopes to have the initiative on the ballot in 2006.

Other agencies across the country have tried more creative moves. A county in southern Idaho unsuccessfully attempted to sue several companies for hiring illegal immigrants earlier this year.

Regular citizens are itching to get involved, too. ICE receives thousands of calls each month to its hotline, (866) 347-2423, where callers can report illegal immigrants, human smugglers, employers hiring undocumented workers and other immigration law violations.

Hundreds of regular people have already gotten involved through the much-hyped Minuteman patrols, a civilian project that stationed volunteers along various sections of the nation's borders. Their intent is to assist the Border Patrol in finding those who enter the country illegally.

Even if the Minuteman effort accomplished little other than increased media attention and a temporary slowdown in border crossings near Arizona, the group's leaders say the movement showed growing frustration over what they see as the government's failed policies.

"This is a cavalier attitude our lawmakers have taken that has jeopardized our security and put our country at risk," said Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minuteman Project. "America is not interested in rhetoric or empty promises. Americans are interested in results, and we will not stop until those results are realized."


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