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Border Crackdown Has El Paso Caught in Middle

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/20/AR2007082002022.html?wpisrc=newsletter Border Crackdown Has El Paso Caught in Middle By Spencer
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 21, 2007
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      Border Crackdown Has El Paso Caught in Middle

      By Spencer S. Hsu
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Tuesday, August 21, 2007; Page A01

      EL PASO -- Leaders of this sunny desert city peppered
      Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff during a
      recent visit with complaints about trade-crimping
      border-crossing delays, unwanted calls to enlist local
      police in enforcing immigration laws and recent deaths
      of immigrants at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol

      "Second-guessers and hindsighters," Chertoff retorted,
      defending such agents against critics who he said
      "have no idea how difficult it is here at the border."

      But to many in El Paso, it is Washington's
      understanding of what it means to be on the border
      that is increasingly in question. As the political
      stalemate continues on how to revamp immigration laws,
      the Bush administration has taken aggressive new
      measures to tighten border security and deal more
      harshly with illegal immigrants.

      And that has El Paso, just a stone's throw across the
      Rio Grande from the Mexican boomtown of Ciudad Juarez,
      feeling even more caught in the middle. "Most people
      in Washington really don't understand life on the
      border," said El Paso Mayor John Cook. "They don't
      understand our philosophy here that the border joins
      us together, it doesn't separate us."

      Although many residents here are as staunchly opposed
      to illegal immigration as those elsewhere in the
      country, El Paso's deep ties to its sister city across
      the river generally make most of them leery of calls
      to wall off the 2,000-mile frontier with Mexico and of
      crackdowns that might complicate border crossings and
      harm a mutually beneficial way of life.

      As the largest U.S. city on the border, El Paso has
      long had a front-row seat to the complexities and
      trade-offs of the nation's immigration laws. Founded
      by the Spanish before the English settlement of
      Jamestown and Plymouth, and with claims to creating
      both the margarita and Thanksgiving, El Paso-Juarez is
      an easygoing but hardworking region that has grown
      into a "borderplex" of 2 million residents.

      Now North America's fourth-largest manufacturing hub
      -- after Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth --
      El Paso and Juarez's surrounding state of Chihuahua
      have 270,000 manufacturing jobs, three times as many
      as Detroit, in 400 maquiladoras, or duty-free
      factories, economic development officials said. About
      78 percent of residents are Hispanic, and 25 percent
      are foreign-born. Families send breadwinners across
      the bridge daily to work, and children to study.

      But that deep web of connections between the two
      cities has been tested in recent weeks -- not only by
      the anxieties of the unresolved political debate over
      how to rewrite immigration laws, but also by the
      complicated daily reality of Washington's new effort
      to crack down on those violating existing laws. Many
      local officials interviewed recently expressed little
      enthusiasm for the increased security measures, and
      civil liberties groups and Mexican authorities have
      said that the harsher enforcement approach might have
      contributed to recent fatal Border Patrol shootings

      On Aug. 8, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed a
      suspected smuggler who allegedly threatened him with a
      rock and bolt cutters at a border fence just east of
      downtown. The death of Jose Alejandro Ortiz Castillo,
      23, was the fifth fatal Border Patrol shooting this
      year and the third in El Paso since June. Before this
      year, the last such local shooting happened in 2004.

      The same day, U.S. authorities reported the deaths of
      two immigrants in custody, including that of a
      pregnant woman who died of a blood clot Aug. 7 at a
      U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention
      center in El Paso. Rosa Isela Contreras-Dominguez, 36,
      a legal U.S. resident and convicted marijuana
      smuggler, was the sixth ICE detainee to die this year,
      out of a detention population that has tripled over
      five years to more than 283,000.

      Mexico's foreign affairs secretary condemned what he
      called an "excessive use of force" in the shooting of
      Ortiz, and the state prosecutor in Chihuahua began a
      homicide investigation.

      "When there is an isolated event, you might understand
      it," said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the
      Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. "But when
      you have two or three . . . then that becomes
      symptomatic that something is not right."

      Advocates for immigrants here are asking whether
      agents have been given permission to shoot first and
      ask questions later, and whether the increase in the
      number of Border Patrol agents and the detention of
      more immigrants have overwhelmed the government's
      ability to train and oversee officers. If so, there
      could be "a very disturbing trend starting," said
      Kathleen Walker, an El Paso lawyer serving as national
      president of the American Immigration Lawyers

      ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said that detention
      officials have acted appropriately and that detention
      deaths this year are running far below the 29
      fatalities reported in 2004, 15 in 2005 and 16 in
      2006. U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Doug Mosier said
      that Ortiz had been caught crossing the border 28
      times since 1999 and that Mexican police said he had a
      criminal history related to narcotics and immigrant

      Asked about the shooting in El Paso, Chertoff said
      that it is under investigation but added that
      increased violence is a sign that smugglers are
      becoming desperate and that enforcement efforts are
      succeeding. The Border Patrol reported 753 assaults
      against officers between October and July, up 18
      percent from the same period a year ago.

      But amid the security crackdown, city officials said
      the construction of security facilities and the
      time-consuming screening of containers, shippers and
      passengers have only worsened hours-long traffic jams
      at border checkpoints. A DHS requirement that by 2009
      those crossing the border by land must show passports
      or similar identification documents is expected to
      further stall traffic.

      "Every major auto manufacturer in the world gets the
      parts to their cars manufactured in Juarez or
      Chihuahua, from the wire harness in the dash to the
      lights in the overhead, the headlights, stereo system,
      you name it. Just about every component is
      manufactured here," said Richard Dayoub, president of
      the El Paso Chamber of Commerce.

      "If we take it to a point where the application of
      these laws in order to more secure our borders slows
      down commerce from Mexico into the U.S. . . . we'll
      all feel it throughout our economy," he said.

      El Paso area law enforcement officials are divided
      about the role that local authorities should play in
      helping overstretched federal agents.

      Although they say they take seriously the obligation
      to fight drug smugglers, human traffickers and
      criminals who prey on immigrants, El Paso's police
      chief, Richard Wiles, and the El Paso County sheriff,
      Lee Samaniego -- like many in the United States --
      disagree about whether police should divert scarce
      resources to track down immigration violators.

      "I'm a law enforcement officer. I think people need to
      follow the rules and the laws," said Wiles, 46, a
      spokesman for the Major Cities Chiefs Association,
      whose members lead 63 U.S. police departments. But, he
      added, "the federal government is responsible to
      control the borders, to control immigration, and so it
      needs to step up to the plate and fulfill its
      responsibility that it's neglected for years and

      Wiles said city leaders fear that police enforcement
      of immigration laws will discourage crime victims and
      witnesses from coming forward and will expose
      taxpayers to greater legal liability if inadequately
      trained police officers violate the civil rights of
      legal U.S. residents.

      Samaniego, 70, the dean of a group of 27 county
      sheriffs along the border from California to Texas,
      disagrees. Since 2005, he has championed Operation
      Linebacker, a $10 million, state-funded effort that in
      his 1,054-square-mile county has paid about 10
      deputies to support Border Patrol officers.

      "There are no advocates for regular citizens who live
      in fear, who are prisoners on their own farms and
      ranches because of an insecure border," said
      Samaniego's chief deputy, Jimmy Apodaca, who added
      that a third of the 45,000 people arrested on state
      crimes and booked into the county jail in 2004 were
      illegal immigrants.

      Still, Samaniego retreated last year, halting the use
      of vehicle checkpoints and the practice of referring
      illegal immigrants accused of no crimes directly to
      Border Patrol agents. The changes came after the
      American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, saying
      citizens' rights were violated, and after 3,000
      residents signed a petition calling for the sheriff to

      During his two-day trip to El Paso last week, Chertoff
      acknowledged that he is pushing a new way to get
      things done at the border, while insisting that he
      knows that a "one-size-fits-all blanket approach" will
      not work. "Piling on security by just putting a lot
      more things on the border" won't resolve the situation
      unless the United States also cuts down demand for
      illegal workers in the interior and creates a legal
      channel of temporary workers, he said.

      "We don't want to destroy the border in order to save
      it," he added.

      Still, Chertoff said, steps that will cause
      unhappiness or serious economic consequences are
      needed to reestablish Washington's credibility after
      decades of inaction. Doing nothing about enforcement,
      he said, "is the approach that bred cynicism" among
      the American public.

      "I recognize we have a situation where we allowed
      circumstances to develop over 30 years -- frankly with
      the complicity of the American people, who have been
      complacent," Chertoff said. Now, he said, "we have to
      do something about it."

      News researchers Aruna Jain and Bob Lyford contributed
      to this report.
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