PHOENIX - At least two Arizona law enforcement agencies want officers to go through additional training so they can work to curb illegal immigration, enabling them to arrest, transport and process illegal entrants.
Most sheriffs and police chiefs near the border, however, say they already are overwhelmed handling encounters with illegal immigrants and don't want to spend additional time and resources enforcing a job that is better left to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Officers or deputies currently make arrests only when they suspect people of disobeying laws. If they suspect someone is an illegal entrant, because of clues such as lacking identification, they notify U.S. Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to decide whether to make arrests. When agents cannot arrive before officers must move on to other duties, local law enforcement officers typically release the detainees.
A bill introduced by Rep. Theresa Ulmer, D-Yuma, would create a program for law enforcement officials to train to detain, transport and process suspected undocumented immigrants.
Ulmer said House Bill 2699 also would allocate $10 million in grants to law enforcement agencies, counties and cities to ease the financial burden associated with illegal immigration.
The measure is scheduled to be heard by the House Government Committee Feb. 20.
Waiting for the Legislature to act was not an option for the Lake Havasu Police Department, which asked its City Council for permission to enter into an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide training similar to what we be covered with Ulmer's bill.
The Lake Havasu City Council on Feb. 18 endorsed the plan and permitted its Police Department to start working on details to train up to five officers, said the police operations Capt. Joe Fiumara.
Though officers don't handle illegal entrants often, they want to be prepared to take action themselves, Fiumara said, adding that officers encounter most undocumented people during traffic stops, while crime committed by illegal entrants is seldom reported there.
It might take Border Patrol hours to get to the city, where none of the roughly 700 Yuma sector agents are permanently stationed, he said.
"We have received inquiries from members of the community on what, if anything, we plan to do about illegal immigration," Fiumara said. "We know that it's something that, one way or another, we're going to encounter in our day-to-day operations."
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office also in the final stages of entering a similar federal agreement to train 160 of its deputies, said Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Only one other Arizona law enforcement agency has entered the federal agreement for special training. In 2005, the Arizona Department of Corrections trained 10 of its prison officers to handle immigration-related duties such as interviewing inmates who are suspected of being in the country illegally and preparing for people in custody for deportation.
Although the agreement could prove helpful in Lake Havasu City and Maricopa County, it would further strain resources for border counties where Border Patrol agents often are able to arrive within 15 minutes, said Yuma County Sheriff Ralph E. Ogden.
A study last year found that Yuma County law enforcement agencies spent about $30,000 on detaining suspected undocumented immigrants and handing them over to Border Patrol.
With the additional training and law enforcement abilities provided in Ulmer's bill or as part of the federal agreement, officers could spend up to three hours processing illegal entrants, keeping officers from other duties and costing the county more than $1 million, Ogden said.
"When you got Border Patrol men on every street corner, why tie your people up?" he said. "There's really no need for it."
About 15 percent of the Pima County Sheriff Department's $100 million budget is spent on illegal immigration-related issues, said Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. This includes people and contraband smuggling, violence, drugs, traffic stops, and finding and identifying bodies in the desert, he said.
About 200 inmates who are in the country illegally are being held at the Pima County Jail on any given day, Dupnik said. They were arrested for crimes committed in the county, not for being there illegally.
"We are substantially affected by the border migration," he said. "I don't have enough resources to provide the kind of service that the people of Pima County deserve, much less go and try to solve the federal government's problem. We don't want to be certified."
In Santa Cruz County, illegal immigration matters have exhausted money and personnel resources, said Sheriff Tony Estrada.
With about 2,600 Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector, border crossers have been pushed to the remotest areas of the county, Estrada said, where accidents and crime have become more frequent.
The county is located "right at the lion's mouth," at the start of a corridor with Interstate 10 leading up to Phoenix and Tucson, and is prone to take the brunt of traffic, he said.
His deputies wouldn't be able to handle additional responsibilities, and instead of providing the additional training for them, he needs more money to tackle the current load of duties, Estrada said.
"For us it has become a big headache," he said. "We are understaffed, our budget does not provide for all of this. Everything that spills over the border illegally is a federal problem."