EDINBURG — Rio Grande Valley law enforcement officials resisted suggestions Wednesday that they should play a larger role in identifying and reporting illegal immigrants to federal authorities.
Enforcing federal immigration law, they said, could hinder efforts to secure their own communities and place overwhelming demands on the time of local officers.
“I see this responsibility shifting closer and closer to municipalities,” McAllen police Chief Victor Rodriguez said. “All that will do is tie up our officers on something we have no control over.”
Their protest came during a joint hearing of the Texas House committees on State Affairs and Border & International Affairs, which have been charged with reviewing recent changes in border security and immigration policies before the next state legislative session in 2009. Their conclusions could influence how $110 million allocated to secure the border in the last session is disbursed.
But throughout Wednesday’s four-hour field hearing in Edinburg, state lawmakers and authorities struggled even to define what border security means.
And some legislators — largely from northern Texas districts — seemed to misunderstand the Valley’s current state of security completely.
“We hear about tanks coming across the border and blowing everybody up,” said state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton. “You don’t have that problem do you?”
Chief among Valley authorities’ concerns is a federal program that provides training to local law enforcement in immigration law.
Growing statewide concern over illegal immigration could pressure lawmakers to include the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement training in future border security efforts, they said.
“It’s like mending a leaking dam without worrying about the water that just flooded your town,” Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño said. “Plugging that leaking dam is the job of the Border Patrol. Mopping up the flood waters, that’s our job.”
So far, at least 28 state, county and local law enforcement agencies nationwide have instituted training to make immigration arrests and prepare illegal crossers for deportation. Hidalgo County, on the other hand, currently maintains a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to dealing with illegal immigrants.
While U.S. Border Patrol agents routinely screen inmates’ immigration status at the county jail, sheriff’s deputies avoid the question out in the field. Inquiring about crime victims’ and witnesses’ legal status could intimidate illegal immigrants from coming forward in the future, Treviño said.
“Regardless of immigration status, everybody has the right to equal protection,” he said.
But ICE’s training program falls in line with a series of border security operations coordinated out of the governor’s office over the past two years.
With names like Operation Linebacker and Operation Wrangler, they have largely focused on stopping illegal immigrants and drugs before they enter the Texas interior and are credited with reducing crime along the border by up to 40 percent.
Jack Colley, director of the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management, announced plans Wednesday to further those efforts by installing a series of cameras along the border, which would allow the public to watch and report illegal crossings to authorities.
“It partners the private landowner with law enforcement, not just as a victim but as a participant,” he said.
Such strategies have proved popular among Texans in the northern parts of the state, where cities such as Flower Mound have struck out on their own to adopt city ordinances that address immigration issues.
And even though it is largely a federal problem, state Rep. Flynn said he still faces pressure from his East Texas constituents to address it.
“If there’s a bad piece of meat with mad cow disease, we can track it down anywhere in the world,” he said.
“It always amazes me that we can’t identify (illegal immigrants) and find out where they are.”