Arizonans used to getting travel warnings about Rocky Point and Guaymas may soon be hearing advisories about Green Valley and Bisbee.
On a voice vote Friday, the state House approved legislation to have the head of the state Department of Homeland Security monitor intelligence from various sources to determine if they indicate “any type of warning about dangerous conditions in regard to illegal immigration activities.”
More to the point, it allows the director to put out that information “in a manner that will immediately warn the public of the danger.” That can include not only telling the local media but everything from Facebook and Twitter to direct e-mails to those who have asked to be notified.
But despite the agency’s statewide authority, HB 2586 won’t have its chief sounding the alarm about possible threats everywhere. Instead, the legislation limits the scope to just 62 miles from the border.
Rep. Peggy Judd, R-Willcox, said those in border areas have special needs to know what is going on.
Judd said she personally has started to carry a gun everywhere she goes, “which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.” And she said that farmers and ranchers in rural areas learn to be prepared.
“But a lot of us don’t know exactly for what,” Judd said. “Are we going to have someone knock on our door? Do we trust since it happened to the lady in the next town that it will happen to us eventually? Do we listen to just the media?”
And Judd said these informal channels can lead to hysteria.
“There are lots of rumors on the border,” Judd told colleagues Friday. “This would give us one place to go to have accurate information that is well-vetted.”
But Gilbert Orrantia, the current state homeland security chief, said what Judd wants is not as simple as it sounds.
“Threat come from various sources and various means in various ways,” he said. “There are threats that are more credible, there are threats that are non-credible.”
Orrantia, a former FBI agent, said law enforcement agencies work closely together, especially following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. But that, he said, is no guarantee.
“There is no one agency that is going to know all of the threats that are out there,” he said.
Orrantia said his agency already works with local law enforcement to coordinate information and provide warnings to them. But he said it’s quite something else to actually require him to provide warnings to the public, as Judd’s original version of the bill required.
“I can’t declare an area ‘safe,’ nor can I necessarily, without very, very imminent information, specifically say that a certain area is extremely dangerous,” he said.
On a more practical level, Orrantia pointed out that unlike the federal Department of Homeland Security, his agency is not involved in law enforcement. Instead, it is in a support role, serving as the state’s liaison to the federal agency and as adviser to the governor, and may not necessarily have the latest information.
He also said that the kind of warnings Judd wants can have unintended ripple effects.
“If we were to warn with regard to a certain area or specific community, that can affect commerce, that can affect trade to that community,” Orrantia said.
Judd agreed on Friday to make several changes designed to address those concerns.
Rather than mandate Orrantia to put out warnings based on any information he has, it left the final decision to his discretion. And the legislation also says Orrantia — or whoever succeeds him — is not liable either for failing to issue a warning, or for any losses or damages from warnings he does make.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said he’s not convinced the legislation is a good idea.
“There is such a thing as too much information,” he said. Gallego said Orrantia’s department probably gets lots of information but lacks the analysts to sift through it “to figure out if that information is actionable, is accurate or is even useful.”
The legislation still needs a final roll-call vote before going to the Senate.