Migrants crossing the Rio Grande to the US near McAllen, Texas are likely to be met by US border guards in their white and green SUVs.
Or police officers from nearby Mission, Texas, a border town of 84,000 people. Or MPs from the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. Or soldiers from the Texas Department of Public Security.
One past afternoon, countless law enforcement officers – local, state and federal – patrolled the dams and back roads near the US-Mexico border where migrants cross to seek asylum in the US.
To what extent local and state police along the border deal with migrants and help enforce immigration regulations – a federal responsibility under US law – is an ongoing legal debate. It’s one that increases as more migrants arrive and police officers along the border increasingly stop groups of migrants or intercept smugglers speeding north.
“They’ve always worked well together,” Clint McDonald, executive director of the 31-County Texas / Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition, told local MPs and federal border agents. “Now it is such an urgent situation that all hands are on deck.”
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 Border Protection statistics. The number of family units and unaccompanied minors is also well on its way to surpassing 20-year highs.
In Texan’s Rio Grande Valley, migrants intersect in groups of more than 50 or 100 people and often turn to authorities in hopes of being processed and then released by their court hearing. While border guards take migrants to detention centers, sheriff MPs intervene to answer calls from migrants invading private land or to try to stop smugglers from getting through, McDonald said.
Clint McDonald, executive director of the 31 County Texas / Southwestern Border Sheriff’s CoalitionThe border police do not want to be immigration officers. But they have to be forced to support Border Patrol because Border Patrol is so thinly scattered.
“The border police don’t want to be immigration officers,” he said. “But they have to be forced to support Border Patrol because Border Patrol is so thinly scattered.”
Under the U.S. Constitution, immigration enforcement and border security are 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 authorities, e.g. Alerting immigration officials when they arrest undocumented migrants – can help enforce immigration laws, she said. But police officers are not trained in the complexities of immigration law or how to deal with migrants, Wadhia said.
Migrant families share what made them leave the house and what awaited them at the border
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
“There are some positive roles that police officers can play in immigration,” she said. “But enforcement of immigration laws is a federal responsibility, and we shouldn’t use police officers to enforce immigration law.”
One of the main risks in enabling local officials to work with migrants is that it could discourage immigrants living in the community from reporting crimes later as they fear conflicting with immigration officials, said Nayna Gupta, deputy director for Politics at the National Immigrant Justice Center, an advocacy group.
In addition, officials who had answered calls related to immigration in the past often created racial profiles, she said.
“In practice, this means that black and brown immigrants are disadvantaged, disproportionately affected and more likely to be detained,” Gupta said.
For years, immigrant rights groups have challenged local law enforcement agencies who have taken an active role in enforcing immigration laws. A California appeals court ruled in 2006 that Los Angeles police officers have the right to prevent police officers from initiating police operations to determine a person’s immigration status.
One of the more well-known challenges was Arizona law, SB 1070, which allowed state forces to ambush suspected undocumented immigrants and made it a state crime not to have proper immigration papers with you. Critics said the law resulted in widespread racial profiles and organized nationwide boycotts.
The Supreme Court ruled most of the law unconstitutional in 2012, but claimed that officials, while enforcing other laws, could question the immigration status of anyone suspected of being illegally in the country.
“It’s something that has worked its way through the courts for many years and is always on the side of police officers who have to deal with enforcing local and criminal laws rather than enforcing immigration laws,” said Belinda Escobosa, national senior counsel the Mexican-American Legal Protection and Education Fund.
Even so, remnants of Arizona law have allowed Cochise County, Arizona lawmakers to confront suspected undocumented migrants and their potential smugglers for years, Sheriff Mark Dannels said. These days, around 90 MPs are patrolling the 6,200-square-foot county with an 83-mile border with Mexico.
Recently, immigrant activity has hit record highs, Dannels said. In March 2020, more than 300 migrants were caught with cameras across the county trying to sneak past agents. In March that number rose to nearly 3,400, he said.
Unlike Texas, where migrants mostly surrender to the Border Patrol, migrants in Cochise County are trying to evade authorities and travel to Phoenix and other points in the north, he said. When confronted smugglers, they often try to move away from authorities and have learned that MPs often loosen up and chase them through communities at high speed, Dannels said.
“It’s a very deadly game that they play,” he said.
Add to that the challenges: a border guard station closed earlier this year, 300 agents removed from the county, and two security checkpoints closed, creating more activity for its MPs, Dannel said. While border guards are linked to a group of migrants, his MPs often answer calls from others trudging through private land or suspected smugglers caught on camera, he said.
Cochise County does not have a 287 (g) agreement with the federal government. But state law allows its MPs to temporarily detain suspicious undocumented migrants and call Border Patrol, he said. If the federal agents don’t show up, the migrants will be released.
“We are not agents of the federal immigration service,” said Dannels. “We have limited options.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
Stories like this are possible because of our subscribers like you. Your support will enable us to continue producing quality journalism.
Stay up to date by signing up for one of our newsletters.
Released 9:09 UTC May. 3, 2021
Updated 13:13 UTC May. 3, 2021