DOUGLAS - Gov. Janet Napolitano says she is ready for local police to battle illegal immigration — but only if the Legislature says the state can pay for it.
During a dusty, 300-mile tour of the Arizona-Mexico border Wednesday, Napolitano talked openly for the first time about giving sheriffs’ deputies and police officers the power to arrest suspected illegal immigrants, go after human smugglers’ bank accounts and other enforcement only federal officers currently can do.
Earlier this year, Napolitano, a Democrat, vetoed a Republican bill that would have allowed local law enforcement to arrest suspected illegal immigrants. The bill offered no additional funding, causing strong opposition from law enforcement agencies around the state.
At the tour’s first stop in Douglas, Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever urged Napolitano and four Republican state lawmakers accompanying her to draft a better alternative.
The governor’s recent actions, including declaring a state of emergency and providing $1.7 million to the border counties, are easing drug trafficking and other violent crime associated with illegal immigration, Dever said. But that money will quickly run out and is "really only a drop in the bucket" compared to what local agencies need, he said.
"Whether we like it or not, we are engaged," Dever said. "We need a law enforcement answer to controlling illegal immigration."
Later, Napolitano said she is prepared to support new powers for law enforcement, but only if state lawmakers don’t ask cities and counties to bear the expense. Napolitano said she will include more funding for local agencies in her 2006 budget proposal. She did not specify how much.
For most of her three years in office, Napolitano tried to keep Arizona out of what traditionally has been viewed as a federal responsibility.
Republicans are hoping Napolitano’s earlier reluctance to use state resources to tackle illegal immigration will hamper her re-election bid next year. House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, made it clear GOP lawmakers aren’t going to relent, even as Napolitano becomes more active. Weiers declared during a tour stop in Sells that immigration will be "the No. 1 issue for the Legislature when it returns in January."
"What we’ve seen today hasn’t been a surprise," Weiers said.
In Douglas and Nogales, local leaders said illegal border crossings appear to be slowing where the federal government has assigned more border agents, has built 10-foot tall metal walls and has installed cameras or other technology to track illegal crossers.
Douglas Police Chief Charlie Austin said crime has dropped substantially from five years ago.
"Since they (the U.S. Border Patrol) built the wall, we don’t have to deal with large numbers of people going through our neighborhoods," Austin said.
But those efforts haven’t reached into more rural, isolated areas, said Wendy Glenn, who owns a ranch with her husband east of Douglas that follows the international border for five miles. Glenn said illegal immigrants continue to flow through, fouling mountain water springs and leaving trash "in every canyon."
"You have no clue of the damage, of the destruction out there," Glenn said. "Everything is suffering — the plants, the animals and the people."
Throughout the tour, border officials said they need more money and other resources. In Sells, the capital for the Tohono O’odham Nation, tribal Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders said American Indian governments haven’t received any Homeland Security grants. The Tohono O’odham Nation shares a 75-mile border with Mexico, which tribal officials describe as protected by "three barbed wires."
"The $7 million (a year) we are spending on border issues we should be spending on education, health care, roads and housing," Saunders said.
But Weiers said the state can’t afford to send more money to every Arizona community struggling with illegal immigration.
"It‘s a universal problem created by an underlying issue that hasn‘t been resolved," Weiers said. "And that issue is closing the border."