Gov. Janet Napolitano is going to seek federal disaster relief to help pay for more law enforcement along the Arizona-Mexico border.
But a federal spokesman questions whether the state is legally entitled to emergency dollars.
"This is not the intent of the law,’’ said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA.
The governor, in a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Arizona is collecting documentation from state, tribal, county and local governments "to prepare an official request for an Emergency Declaration from the federal government.’’
Napolitano’s move comes a month after she used her own powers to declare a state of emergency in Cochise, Santa Cruz, Pima and Yuma counties.
That declaration, coupled with the approval of her Emergency Council, freed up $1.5 million for those counties to fight crime associated with illegal immigration, such as drug trafficking, human smuggling, car theft and fraudulent ID cards. But even Napolitano admitted those funds provide only temporary relief.
Knocke said FEMA will review any request the state eventually files. But he suggested the governor’s request for federal disaster aid dollars is inappropriate. Congress approved the emergency aid statutes to provide immediate relief from a disaster that already has occurred and where cash is needed to make repairs, he said.
But Pati Urias, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the administration believes the problem does qualify under federal law, even though it is not a hurricane or other natural disaster.
"The federal government has lost operational control of the border between Arizona and Mexico,’’ Urias said. "When one state accounts for about half of all the illegal immigrants caught coming to the United States, that’s a problem worthy of an emergency declaration.’’
Urias said the problem became exacerbated once federal immigration officers increased enforcement in California and Texas.
"Arizona became the place to sneak into the country illegally, since the crackdown did not deal with the entire border, only selected portions of it,’’ she said.
The state’s anticipated request — and FEMA’s eventual decision — will again place the embattled agency in the spotlight. It already is under fire for what many have called an inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, resulting in the resignation of its director Michael Brown.
Cam Hunter, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, said the amount to be sought from Washington will depend on how much the counties and their law enforcement say they need.
The state had hoped to have that figure compiled by now. But Napolitano said that efforts to accept evacuees from Hurricane Katrina put the border emergency issue on the back burner.
Now Napolitano is looking at the middle of November to file the new federal aid request.
Napolitano has repeatedly blasted the federal government, saying that the problems are because federal agencies failed to meet their responsibility to secure the border. That, she wrote to FEMA, has had a "pronounced effect’’ on border counties.
"Hundreds of immigrants have died, violent criminal activity has increased,’’ the governor wrote. She also said "repeated trespasses to real property have damaged vegetation, wildlife and livestock.’’