Migrants crossing the Rio Grande to the United States near McAllen, Texas, will likely be greeted by U.S. Border Patrol officers in their white and green SUVs.
Or police officers from neighboring Mission, Texas, a border town of 84,000 people. Or deputies from the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. Or soldiers from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Recently, in the afternoon, a myriad of law enforcement officers – local, state and federal – patrolled the levees and back roads near the US-Mexico border where migrants cross to seek asylum from the states. -United.
How well do local and state police along the border engage with migrants and help enforce immigration – under US law, a federal responsibility? Has been the subject of an ongoing legal debate. It’s a situation that is escalating as more migrants arrive and police along the border increasingly arrest groups of migrants or intercept smugglers heading north.
“They’ve always worked well together,” Clint McDonald, executive director of the Texas / Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition of 31 counties, said of local MPs and federal border officials. “Now it is such an urgent situation that all hands are on the bridge.”
Federal agents encountered 172,331 migrants in March, more than the 101,028 processed in February and nearly 70,000 more than in March 2019, when large numbers of migrants arrived at the border, according to U.S. Customs and Protection statistics. borders. The number of family units and unaccompanied minors is also on track to surpass 20-year highs.
In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, migrants cross in groups of more than 50 or 100 people and often surrender to authorities, hoping to be treated and then released until their court date. As border patrol officers transport migrants to detention facilities, sheriff’s deputies step in to respond to calls from migrants breaking into private land or to try to prevent smugglers from passing through, McDonald said. .
“Border sheriffs don’t want to be immigration officers,” he said. “But they must be forced to take on the role of assisting the border patrol because the border patrol is so dispersed.”
Under the U.S. Constitution, immigration law enforcement and border security are roles assigned to federal agents, said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, professor of law 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 certain enforcement tasks to local agencies, like alerting immigration officials when they arrest undocumented migrants – can help. to the application of certain immigration rules, she said. But police officers are not trained in the intricacies of immigration law or how to engage with migrants, Wadhia said.
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“Police officers can play some positive roles in immigration,” she said. “But immigration law enforcement is a federal responsibility and we should not delegate immigration enforcement to the police.”
One of the main risks in allowing local officials to engage with migrants is that it could deter immigrants living in the community from later reporting the crimes, fearing run-ins with immigration officials, said Nayna Gupta, director. policy assistant at the National Immigrant Justice Center. , an advocacy group.
Additionally, officers answering immigration-related calls in the past have often engaged in racial profiling, she said.
“In practice, this means that black and brown immigrants are disproportionately disadvantaged and affected and more likely to be detained,” Gupta said.
For years, immigrant rights groups have challenged local law enforcement agencies that have been active in immigration law enforcement. A California appeals court ruled in 2006 that Los Angeles police officers have the right to prohibit police officers from taking police action for the sole purpose of determining a person’s immigration status. .
One of the most well-known challenges involved an Arizona law, SB 1070, which allowed state soldiers to arrest suspected undocumented immigrants and made it a state crime to have no papers. appropriate immigration. Critics said the law led to widespread racial profiling and organized boycotts statewide.
The Supreme Court in 2012 ruled most of the law unconstitutional, but held that officers, while enforcing other laws, can question the immigration status of a person suspected of being in the country illegally. .
“This is something that has been working its way through the courts for many years and has always spoken out on the side of the police who must be engaged in the application of local and criminal laws and not devote themselves to immigration law enforcement, ”said Belinda Escobosa, senior national counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Yet the remnants of Arizona law have for years allowed deputies in Cochise County, Arizona, to confront suspected undocumented migrants and their alleged 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 reached record levels, Dannels said. In March 2020, more than 300 migrants were captured by cameras mounted across the county trying to walk past officers. In March, that number climbed to nearly 3,400, he said.
Unlike Texas, where the migrants mostly go to the border patrol, migrants from Cochise County are trying to escape authorities and head for Phoenix and other points to the north, he said. When confronted, smugglers often try to get away from authorities and have learned that MPs will more often disengage rather than chase them through communities at high speed, Dannels said.
“It’s a very deadly game that they’re playing,” he said.
Adding to the challenges: A border patrol station closed earlier this year, removing 300 officers from the county, and two security checkpoints closed, creating more activity for its deputies, Dannel said. While border patrol agents are linked to a group of migrants, their deputies often respond to calls from other people crossing private land or suspected smugglers on camera, he said.
Cochise County does not have a 287 (g) agreement with the federal government. But state law allows his deputies to temporarily detain suspected undocumented migrants and call the border patrol, he said. If federal agents do not show up, the migrants are released.
“We are not federal immigration law enforcement officers,” Dannels said. “We are limited in what we can do.”
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