August 27, 2008

Abilene has role in border protection

Federal, local agencies work together toward common goals
By Brian Bethel (Contact)
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

When it comes to stemming the flow of illegal immigrants, Abilene does play a part in strategies of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The two organizations frequently work together and with other law enforcement agencies in the area to accomplish common goals, representatives of each said Wednesday.

"We routinely work with Border Patrol and many, many different law enforcement agencies to accomplish the common goal of combating crime," said Carl Rusnok, a spokesman with ICE.

Agents in the Abilene station, the northernmost office of the CBP's Del Rio Sector, generally are patrolling highways, focusing on critical transit areas such as Interstate 20, said Dennis Smith, a public affairs officer for the organization.

And Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts may include work with the program's five main offices -- Investigations, Detention and Removal, Intelligence, Internal Affairs and Federal Protective Service.

Although a perennial issue for the United States, the issue of illegal immigration has again come to the forefront in recent weeks thanks to highly publicized raids by ICE.

Federal agents recently raided a manufacturing plant in Mississippi and rounded up hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants, the AP reported this week.

The Mississippi raid, in which agents arrested nearly 600 people on Monday, is said to have been the largest workplace enforcement raid in the nation's history, but it is one of several nationwide in recent years.

On May 12, for example, federal immigration officials swept into Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, in Iowa. Nearly 400 workers were detained and dozens of fraudulent permanent resident alien cards were seized from the plant's human resources department, court records showed.

The issue has received comment and criticism from a variety of sources.

Rhode Island's Roman Catholic bishop recently called on U.S. authorities to halt mass immigration raids and said agents who refuse to participate in such raids on moral grounds deserve to be treated as conscientious objectors.

Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin asked for a blanket moratorium on immigration raids in Rhode Island until the nation adopts comprehensive immigration reform.

Protecting borders

An illegal immigrant can be anyone from a person who has overstayed a visa to individuals looking for work to drug traffickers, Smith said.

"As far as the countries that people originate from, that could be any country in the world," he said. The majority CPB interacts with are from Mexico, but that is "not exclusive," Smith said.

Abilene, considered a substation of San Angelo's office, is an "essential" part of the overall sector mission, he said.

"Our agents do gain a good bit of experience on the job, and they're able to by observation and experience detect potential illegal activity, just like other law enforcement agencies," he said. "Just like local police, they get a sense for when something may not be as it should be."

Smith could not provide the number of agents at the Abilene agency because of security reasons, he said.

Interior stations like Abilene primarily back up stations directly on the border, and agents in the Abilene area are charged with focusing on critical transit nodes, including interstate highways such as I-20.

Abilene's substation covers eight counties, including Taylor, Callahan, Jones, Nolan, Palo Pinto, Shackelford and Stephens.

The agency's Operation Streamline, which started in the Del Rio sector in December 2005, basically takes a zero-tolerance policy toward illegal immigration, Smith said. Those under the program face criminal prosecution and administrative sanction that can impair their ability to apply for legal entry later on, he said.

The program, which started in Eagle Pass and has since spread, is credited with a deterrence effect that has caused the number of apprehensions throughout the sector to drop -- a good thing, Smith said.

In fiscal year 1999, for example, border agents apprehended more than 156,000 people. In the last fiscal year, that number had dropped to 22,918.

"Agents have been better able to focus on areas where they're not overrun with illegal immigration problems," he said.

The area overseen by ICE's Dallas division, made up of 128 counties, has deported more than 11,600 people so far in fiscal year 2008, he said.

In all of fiscal year 2007, the organization deported 13,400 people. In 2007, about 5,300 of those deported were considered "criminal aliens," he said.

Examples might be related to drug charges or immigration violations. Attempted re-entry after deportation is a felony, Rusnok said.

So far in fiscal year 2008, about 3,500 criminal aliens have been deported. Local numbers for Taylor County were not available.

John Cummins, a spokesman with the Taylor County Sheriff's Department, said that it's not common for federal agencies to ask for his agency's help in detaining illegal immigrants, but it does happen.

"It's something that just happens on a case-by-case basis," he said.

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