Violence on the U.S.-Mexico border is at an all-time high because illegal aliens are more willing to attack U.S. authorities, and an increasing number also are convicted criminals, border sheriffs said yesterday.
Whereas 10 years ago they would flee back to Mexico if anyone challenged them, now aliens make it clear they will fight, the sheriffs told a Senate Judiciary Committee panel.
“They make it known to the deputies: ‘We’re going through, you’re not going to stop us,’” said Sheriff A. D’Wayne Jernigan of Val Verde County in Texas.
And Sheriff Larry A. Dever of Cochise County in Arizona said when smugglers are involved, law enforcement now expects the worst.
“We anticipate that we will be in a fight, a very violent confrontation, in every interdiction effort, with running gunbattles down public roadways,” he said.
The sheriffs described a border in chaos and a federal government that hasn’t put the resources into its own efforts, nor been as receptive as possible to local law-enforcement efforts to help out.
They said the trend toward violent confrontations has happened in the past decade as the trade in drugs and people has become a big business for smugglers and with the increase in OTMs, or “other than Mexican” aliens, attempting to cross.
“It sounds like, if nothing else, there’s at least an attitude of entitlement,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
Border violence has become a hot topic in recent months, with drug cartels brazenly killing police chiefs on the Mexican side, the discovery of a tunnel under the border ending in a warehouse in San Diego, attacks on U.S. authorities increasing, and a videotaped encounter with what Texas sheriffs said was Mexican military on the U.S. side of the border.
Senators said one reason for the rise in violence on the U.S. side is that many illegal aliens are convicted criminals or persons wanted for crimes. More than 42,000 illegal aliens caught at the U.S. border in the past five months fell into that category, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Because the goal of these criminals is to smuggle valuable drugs and humans across the border, the violence today has led to gunfire exchanges with our law-enforcement agents,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican. “These criminals also have no prejudice in their violence, as they also assault the very people they’re smuggling illegally into our country.”
Mr. Kyl said the Department of Homeland Security reported that 139,000 of the 1.1 million people apprehended along the border in 2005 were criminal aliens seeking to illegally re-enter the United States.
In addition to the sheriffs, federal immigration authorities also testified yesterday.
Under questioning by Sen. Jeff Sessions, Marcy M. Forman, the director of the Office of Investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said her office doesn’t have the money or staff to respond to all calls from local law enforcement to come pick up illegal aliens.
“Basically the rule in Alabama was it was 15 or more, we might come and pick them up. Otherwise basically don’t bother to call. Isn’t that the real fact?” said Mr. Sessions, Alabama Republican.
Miss Forman said not all calls about illegal aliens are a priority for ICE.
“With 5,500 special agents we have to prioritize. Our prioritization entails national security and public safety,” she said, which means dangerous felons and those thought to be security risks.
She said “funding is an issue” for why they don’t have the ability to respond. President Bush called for modest increases in ICE agents in this year’s budget.
Sheriff Dever said that although his border county gets a good response from ICE, that’s not true for his colleagues in the interior.
Also yesterday, Mr. Kyl and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, joined by a bipartisan group of House members, announced a bill to close a loophole in the law regarding tunnels that run under the border. Although it is illegal to smuggle drugs or people through tunnels, it is not illegal to build a tunnel or own the property that the tunnel exits onto.
Forty tunnels have been discovered, 39 or them on the southern border. The border sheriffs are making the rounds of Capitol Hill in their search for more aid.
A House bill passed last year would allow border sheriffs to aid in enforcing immigration laws, and some states have signed agreements allowing ICE to train local law enforcement on how to detain and process illegal aliens.
Members of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition testified before a House Homeland Security Committee panel last month and some of their members, along with several Arizona sheriffs, will be before a House Judiciary Committee panel today.