WASHINGTON - The decision by the governors of Arizona and New Mexico to declare states of emergency along their troubled borders with Mexico has embarrassed the Department of Homeland Security, which scrambled yesterday to defend itself from charges that it wasn't doing enough to combat the crime and violence associated with drug smuggling and illegal immigration.
And the unusual action by two Democratic governors and the Bush administration's response reflected the political tensions that surround the nation's conflicting attitudes toward border control.
Last Friday, responding to pressure from border communities, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson declared an emergency in four counties that he said have been "devastated by the ravages and terror of human smuggling, drug smuggling, kidnapping, murder, destruction of property and death of livestock." On Monday, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano followed suit in four counties in her state, declaring through a spokesperson that the federal government "has not done what it needs to do and has promised to do" to deal with the problem.
Rejecting such criticism, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said the problems Richardson and Napolitano complained about were the result of successful efforts to enforce border laws elsewhere.
Moreover, the official said, trouble in those relatively sparsely populated areas had been anticipated and additional resources had been dispatched to deal with them.
An enforcement drive in the Tucson sector of Arizona has forced illegal immigrants to use border crossing points in the counties that Napolitano had declared disaster areas, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Mario Villarreal said. "In anticipation of this, we had already permanently assigned an increase in staffing to those sectors."
CBP plans to boost staff by 20 percent along the Arizona border this year and has doubled the number of patrol aircraft there, Villarreal said, and the El Paso sector, which covers all of New Mexico and part of Texas, will get an additional 300 agents.
Some critics were quick to accuse the governors of political maneuvering. Napolitano and Richardson face elections next year.