As Congress Talks, States Act on Immigration Issue

Mike Madden, Arizona Republic (Phoenix), March 14, 2006

WASHINGTON—In Texas, sheriffs are banding together to guard the U.S.-Mexican border using state money instead of calling for the Border Patrol.

In Alabama, state troopers check drivers against immigration databases when they make traffic stops on the highway.

And state lawmakers from Georgia to New York have considered making employment of undocumented immigrants a state crime, as well as a federal one.

Even as Congress debates immigration reform and border security, state and local governments are proceeding with their own plans to deal with illegal immigration. They are tired of waiting for the federal help that they say is too slow to come.

Border states such as Arizona, where Gov. Janet Napolitano and state lawmakers are battling over deploying the National Guard to the border, are leading the way in using their own resources on immigration. The most heavily trafficked state for illegal immigration, Arizona was the site of more than half of the 1.1 million arrests the Border Patrol made in fiscal 2004.

Like Napolitano in Arizona, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has declared an emergency along his state’s border.

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Some states, counties and cities have signed agreements with federal authorities to become, in essence, deputized immigration-enforcement agents. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has trained state police officers and sheriffs deputies in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina and California, as well as the Arizona Department of Corrections, to investigate whether prisoners held on other charges are undocumented immigrants.

“Troopers, in the course of their regular jobs, were encountering situations that they were not equipped to deal with,” said Martha Earnhardt, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Public Safety, where 44 state troopers have been trained in immigration enforcement by ICE agents since 2003.

The state started the program mostly because ICE had only one full-time agent posted there. Since then, Alabama troopers have made more than 160 arrests on immigration charges.

Most state and local agencies have resisted doing worksite raids or sweeping enforcement actions designed to catch undocumented immigrants, preferring to arrest people when they find them in the course of doing their regular work.

“We’re not going to the migrant camps or to where they’re harvesting vegetables and checking everybody’s documents,” said Mark Zadra, chief of statewide intelligence for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where troopers have focused their immigration enforcement on finding potential terrorists. “When you have illegal aliens that are in your community, they are often victims of crimes themselves, because people take advantage of them. . . If someone is here illegally and they’re a victim, we did not want them to feel that they couldn’t come to law enforcement and report it.”

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