Outmanned and outgunned, local law enforcement officers are alarmed by the drug and human trafficking, prostitution, kidnapping and money laundering that Mexican drug cartels are conducting in the U.S. far from the border.
U.S. sheriffs say that securing the border is a growing concern to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, not just those near the U.S.-Mexico boundary.
“If we fail to secure our borders, then every sheriff in America will become a border sheriff,” said Sam Page, sheriff of Rockingham County, N.C. “We’re only a two-day drive from the border and have already seen the death and violence that illegal crossings brings into our community.”
Sheriff Page, whose county has about 94,000 residents, noted that a Mexican cartel set up one of its drug warehouses about a mile from his home.
“These men are coming into our county with more firepower than I have,” he said Wednesday. “I’m literally outgunned.”
The sheriff in North Carolina was one of several from across the country attending Hold Their Feet to the Fire, an annual two-day radio confab in Washington organized by the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
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Rusty Fleming, a spokesman for the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, is on the front lines of the border battle and said the U.S. side is losing.
“These cartels are so sophisticated. They’re getting affluent white teenagers to help them encrypt their software; they do digital money-laundering, can hack into government databases and actively recruit our agents to keep one step ahead. The rest of America is just now getting a taste of what we’ve been dealing with for years,” Mr. Fleming said.
He estimates that cartels have infiltrated more than 3,000 U.S. cities and are recruiting local gangs, former prisoners and teenagers to do their dirty work.
“There’s no doubt they’re spreading themselves very rapidly and very deep into our U.S. interior,” said Mr. Fleming, who directed the documentary “Drug Wars” and has testified before Congress about the drug trade.
Sheriff Page said Rockingham County has jailed 194 illegal immigrants on criminal charges since 2010. Of those arrested, 10 were released and later rearrested. Six were deported only to re-enter the country, re-establish themselves in his neighborhood and get rearrested.
North Carolina has the second-busiest drug trafficking route in the South, after the region around Atlanta.
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“We can’t have open borders,” Sheriff Page said. “We need to track who’s coming in and out of our country. If we don’t know who’s here, how are we going to protect ourselves?”
Law enforcement officers in Frederick County, Md., are experiencing firsthand the proliferation of cartels.
“It’s a huge problem for our public safety and a growing problem in our jurisdiction,” Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said. “The federal government can’t take care of this problem alone. Every state and law enforcement officer needs to be able to enforce immigration laws to be effective.”
About 9 percent of Frederick County arrests involve illegal immigrants, according to the sheriff’s office.
Since entering into an agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in early 2008, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office has detained 1,250 illegal immigrants, 50 of whom have had connections to Mexican drug cartels and organized crime, Sheriff Jenkins said.
“The success of the program is not in the numbers; it’s who is actually getting arrested,” the sheriff said. “Do I want Mexican gang members on the streets of Frederick County? Hell no.”
He noted that the county recently deported to Colombia a convicted pedophile who was in the U.S. illegally.
“This program works, but there’s such a political fallout from using it, many county sheriffs won’t,” Sheriff Jenkins said.
He cited criticism from groups opposed to the federal mobilization of local law enforcement officers in immigration enforcement.
Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said such programs waste federal money and are discriminatory.
“The idea of deputizing local sheriffs as front-line immigration reformers is a catastrophic mistake,” said Chris Newman, the network’s general counsel. “It distracts attention, chills people from reporting crime, encourages racial profiling and leads to the unconstitutional arrest and detainment of illegal immigrants.”
Local law enforcers expressed frustration over the politicized nature of the immigration debate and said they are only trying to make their jurisdictions safer. Knowing who is in their jurisdictions illegally is a good start, they said.
Sheriff Page said that tracking expired visas, using biometrics at points of entry along the border, and further empowering ICE and local law enforcement would help tremendously. The House Judiciary Committee is considering such measures in immigration reform bills.
Mr. Fleming, who has been dealing with border issues for years, says more stringent measures are needed.
“There is a very, very big opposition to calling these organizations what they really are: narcoterrorists,” he said. “When you label them as a narcoterrorists, we can pursue and target them under the Patriot Act. This is one of the major things that we need to do because of the level of sophistication they have. We have a saying on the border: ‘If it gets by us today, it’s going to be your problem tomorrow.’”