Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Department of Homeland Security, responding to a state of emergency declared last week by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano because of illegal immigration, says it wants to help Arizona combat alien smuggling, ease related prison overcrowding and train state police officers.

“We are moving forward quickly and aggressively to fashion a comprehensive plan with real solutions,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the governor in a letter delivered Monday. He said the agency wants to “build a partnership with Arizona.”

Mr. Chertoff said yesterday that his agency was examining how best to tighten U.S. borders while catching, detaining and deporting illegal aliens already in the country. The review is expected in the next several weeks.

“I think this is very promising,” Miss Napolitano said during a visit yesterday to Washington. “We’re finally seeing some movement. I look forward to speaking with Secretary Chertoff. It’s finally nice to get something in writing.”

Miss Napolitano, who released $1.5 million in emergency funds to help Cochise, Pima, Santa Cruz and Yuma counties combat an influx of illegal aliens, had accused the federal government of failing to secure the border, saying rising illegal immigration threatened the public’s safety and health.

She also was critical of the federal government’s unwillingness to reimburse state and local governments for the cost of apprehending, prosecuting and detaining illegal aliens who commit crimes in Arizona. In February, she sent the Justice Department a bill for $217 million for incarcerating criminal aliens, a request to which the department did not respond.

Arizona is the nation’s most popular immigration corridor, accounting for about half of the 1.15 million illegal aliens apprehended last year. A flood of illegals into Arizona has resulted in a huge rise in crime statewide, as well as an explosion of violence on the border — much of it aimed at U.S. Border Patrol agents.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had declared a state of emergency for four border counties a few days before Miss Napolitano, making $750,000 immediately available to help pay for additional law-enforcement efforts and to build a fence around a Columbus, N.M., livestock yard where cattle have been killed or stolen by illegals.

He also pledged an additional $1 million for the counties.

Mr. Richardson said he was “encouraged” by Mr. Chertoff’s response to his concerns, saying the secretary told him during a telephone call yesterday that border security was a top department priority.

“We need help as soon as possible, and I was encouraged by his telephone call and his comments,” Mr. Richardson said, adding that Mr. Chertoff told him that the department was getting 1,000 new Border Patrol agents and that many of them will be assigned to the New Mexico border.

Mr. Richardson also said he was meeting on Friday with Gov. Jose Reyes Baeza in Chihuahua, Mexico, located just across the border from New Mexico, and was “hopeful” the two could reach agreements on immigration and border security concerns.

Mr. Chertoff said yesterday that his department, as part of the pending review, recently had begun mapping out its surveillance equipment, personnel and other assets to combat the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens crossing into the United States from Mexico each year — and the criminal “coyote” groups that smuggle them.

“We have established working groups with ardent goals and short deadlines to make recommendations for better enforcement strategies all across the operations spectrum,” Mr. Chertoff wrote in his letter to Miss Napolitano, calling immigration enforcement an issue of “utmost importance.”

Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen said the department hopes to involve Arizona law-enforcement officers with agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol to crack down on alien and drug smuggling in the Phoenix area.

Mr. Agen said ICE will invite Arizona Department of Public Safety officers to participate in the agency’s human-trafficking task forces in Phoenix and that the Border Patrol will ask for DPS officers to work with agents at checkpoints on two interstate highways. He also said patrol activities at Sky Harbor International Airport by federal agents would continue, and that similar patrols would begin at the Phoenix bus station.

He also noted that 350 additional Border Patrol agents have been assigned to New Mexico.

In March, Homeland Security said it was sending 500 new Border Patrol agents to southeastern Arizona to combat illegal immigration and protect against terrorists, 150 immediately and the remaining by Sept. 30.

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