September 19, 2008

Lawmakers hear about border law concerns

By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau

AUSTIN -- Border sheriffs described their homes as war zones where officers are under nearly constant attack from drug cartels and potential terrorists, while police chiefs told lawmakers their border cities are safe places and crime is falling.

"Everything is not negative," Laredo Police Chief Carlos Maldonado said. "The picture is not black; the picture is not bleak."

Their accounts of life on the U.S.-Mexico border differed, but their message to legislators was the same: Local police agencies need more money for patrols and they don't want the responsibility of enforcing federal immigration law.

Border officials talked with the Texas Senate International Relations and Trade Committee about stemming illegal immigration and drug and human trafficking. The committee is preparing a report on border security and immigration before the legislative session begins in January.

Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez said violence from Mexico has spilled over the border.

"It's coming to a neighborhood near you whether you want to believe it or not," he said.

Gonzalez and Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores described executions and kidnappings and said cartel "thugs" threaten deputies.

Asked whether terrorists were crossing the border, Gonzales said, "We don't know how many we've caught."

In a phone interview, El Paso County Sheriff's Office spokesman Deputy Jesse Tovar said that raging violence in Juárez has not spilled north, but that if it did, the department was ready to respond.

El Paso Mayor John Cook also told the committee that the Juárez violence was not seeping into the city. And police chiefs from Laredo, McAllen and Del Rio said their cities were not under siege.

"The sky is not falling," McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said.

Cook and other officials, including Texas Department of Public Safety Director Col. Stan Clark, urged lawmakers to allow immigration enforcement to remain a federal responsibility.

Last year, some legislators proposed requiring agencies to enforce federal immigration laws to get access to state funding.

"The federal government needs to do their job," Cook said.

Brandi Grissom may be reached at; 512-479-6606.

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