Migrants crossing the Rio Grande into the United States near McAllen, Texas, are likely to be met by U.S. Border Patrol agents in their signature white-and-green SUVs.
Or police officers from nearby Mission, Texas, a border town of 84,000. Or deputies from the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. Or troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
On a recent afternoon, a myriad of law enforcement agents – local, state and federal – patrolled the levees and backroads near the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants cross to seek asylum in the United States.
To what degree local and state police along the border engage with migrants and assist in immigration enforcement – under U.S. law, a federal responsibility – has been an ongoing legal debate. It’s one that is ramping up as more migrants arrive and as police officers along the border are increasingly stopping groups of migrants or intercepting smugglers speeding north.
“They’ve always worked well together,” Clint McDonald, executive director of the 31-county Texas/Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition, said of local deputies and federal border agents. “Now, it’s such an urgent situation that all hands are on deck.”
Federal agents encountered 172,331 migrants in March, higher than the 101,028 processed in February and nearly 70,000 higher than in March 2019, when large numbers of migrants arrived at the border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics. The number of family units and unaccompanied minors are also on pace to surpass 20-year highs.
In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, migrants cross in groups of more than 50 or 100 and often turn themselves in to authorities, hoping to be processed and then released until their court date. As Border Patrol agents ferry migrants to holding facilities, sheriff deputies step in to answer calls of migrants trespassing on private land or to try to block smugglers from getting through, McDonald said.
“The border sheriffs do not want to be immigration officers,” he said. “But they’re having to be forced into the role of assisting Border Patrol because Border Patrol is spread so thin.”
Under the U.S. Constitution, immigration enforcement and border security are roles assigned to federal agents, said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, a law professor at Penn State Law and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic.
Local communities with 287(g) agreements – or contracts with the federal government that delegate some enforcement duties to local agencies, such as alerting immigration officials when they arrest undocumented migrants — can assist in some immigration enforcement, she said. But police officers are not trained in the complexities of immigration law or engaging with migrants, Wadhia said.
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“There are some positive roles that police officers can play in immigration,” she said. “But immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility and we should not be deputizing police officers to enforce immigration law.”
One of the main risks in allowing local officers to engage with migrants is that it could dissuade immigrants living in the community to later report crimes, fearing run-ins with immigration officers, said Nayna Gupta, associate director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, an advocacy group.
Also, officers answering immigration-related calls in the past have often engaged in racial profiling, she said.
“In practice, that means Black and brown immigrants are at a disadvantage and disproportionately impacted and more likely to be detained,” Gupta said.
For years, immigrant rights groups have challenged local law enforcement agencies who have taken active roles in immigration enforcement. A California appellate court in 2006 ruled that Los Angeles police officials were in their rights to bar police officers from initiating police action with the sole purpose of determining someone’s immigration status.
One of the better-known challenges involved an Arizona law, SB 1070, that allowed state troopers to pull over suspected undocumented immigrants and made it a state crime to not be carrying proper immigration documents. Critics said the law led to widespread racial profiling and organized statewide boycotts.
The Supreme Court in 2012 ruled most of the law unconstitutional but maintained that officers, while enforcing other laws, may question the immigration status of someone suspected to be in the country unlawfully.
“It’s something that’s been working its way through the courts for many years and has always come out on the side of police officers need to be engaged in enforcing local laws and criminal statutes and not be in the business of enforcing immigration laws,” said Belinda Escobosa, national senior counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Still, remnants of the Arizona law have for years allowed deputies in Cochise County, Arizona, to confront suspected undocumented migrants and their would-be smugglers, Sheriff Mark Dannels said. These days, around 90 deputies patrol the 6,200-square-foot county with 83 miles of border with Mexico.
Lately, migrant activity has spiked to record highs, Dannels said. In March 2020, more than 300 migrants were caught on cameras mounted across the county trying to sneak past agents. In March, that number soared to almost 3,400, he said.
Unlike Texas, where migrants mostly surrender to Border Patrol, migrants in Cochise County try to evade authorities and head to Phoenix and other points north, he said. When confronted, smugglers will often try to speed away from authorities and have learned that deputies will more often than not disengage than chase them through communities at high speeds, Dannels said.
“It’s a very deadly game they’re playing,” he said.
Adding to the challenges: One Border Patrol station closed earlier this year, removing 300 agents from the county, and two security checkpoints shuttered, creating more activity for his deputies, Dannel said. While Border Patrol agents are tied up with one group of migrants, his deputies will often answer calls of others tromping through private lands or suspected smugglers caught on camera, he said.
Cochise County doesn’t have a 287(g) agreement with the federal government. But state law allows his deputies to temporarily hold suspected undocumented migrants and call Border Patrol, he said. If the federal agents don’t show up, the migrants are let go.
“We’re not federal immigration enforcement agents,” Dannels said. “We’re limited in what we can do.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
9:09 am UTC May. 3, 2021
9:09 am UTC May. 3, 2021