Shifting Border Patrol agents worries local law enforcement
Scripps Howard News Service
By TRISH CHOATE
Scripps Howard News Service
The coming shutdown of interior U.S. Border Patrol stations -- including six in Texas and one each in California, Idaho and Montana -- will strain local resources, some Texas law enforcement officials say.
The Border Patrol plans to withdraw 41 agents in about six months, transferring them closer to the United States' international borders in an effort to increase security there.
The station closings -- expected to save $1.3 million annually -- have brought howls of protest from Texas areas where resources for immigration law enforcement already are stretched.
"We can barely get anything done at this point," David Duke, sheriff of Wichita County, said in a phone interview. "We still run across illegals that are here, carloads of them or vanloads of them, and we don't have any recourse."
The sheriff's office could fill up the limited space in the local jail with undocumented immigrants "in a heartbeat," Duke said, but if they haven't committed a felony, he has no option but to let them go.
The nearest Border Patrol station is in Dallas, roughly 140 miles to the southeast. Station closings also are planned in Abilene, Amarillo, Lubbock, San Angelo and San Antonio, all in Texas; and in Riverside, Calif.; Twin Falls, Idaho; and Billings, Mont.
The Border Patrol had 21,444 agents on staff in 2011, an increase of 886 from the previous year. Border Patrol spokesman Bill Brooks said the shift might preclude the agency from responding in areas in which stations are shutting down.
"We'll do what we can," Brooks said.
It's unclear what federal assistance will be available following the closures.
In a July 2 memo on the change, Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher said his agency "maintains partnerships with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local law enforcement agencies to periodically reassess threats and respond accordingly."
The Border Patrol and ICE are separate entities within the Department of Homeland Security, with somewhat different focuses.
The Border Patrol decision doesn't affect immigration agents, who will remain in Texas cities losing the patrol stations, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said.
Rusnok declined to disclose the number of immigration agents at those offices, citing security reasons. He said immigration agents -- who focus on illegal aliens involved in serious crimes, major drug offenses and crimes threatening national security -- routinely respond to local law enforcement requests.
In areas losing agents, the Border Patrol's withdrawal puts a twist on a Supreme Court ruling in late June. In considering a controversial Arizona immigration law, the high court upheld certain powers for state and local authorities. It left in place a provision for officers to check the immigration status of anyone stopped, detained or arrested in connection with other violations if officers suspect the person is in the country illegally.
"If they're illegal, then what are we going to do with them?" asked Tim Vasquez, police chief in San Angelo.
In a letter sent last week, congressional representatives in West Texas asked the Border Patrol to reconsider or delay the closings -- at least until the agency presents a plan to help deal with immigration violations.
(Contact reporter Trish Choate at choatet(at)shns.com.)