YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West

INS Defends Ranchers in Detaining of Migrants

Immigration: Agency calls Arizona actions a trespassing issue, finds no evidence of shootings. But official condemns 'vigilantes.'


WASHINGTON — Arizona ranchers under fire from Mexico for detaining illegal immigrants crossing their land "have legitimate concerns about the trespassers on their property," Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner said Thursday.

Meissner said there is no evidence to support reports by Mexican media that ranchers have shot at migrants in recent weeks. But she condemned what she called "vigilantes" and said that federal and local authorities are investigating the reports.

Meissner made the comments to reporters during a day of meetings in Washington between senior U.S. and Mexican officials that was dominated by Mexican government concerns over the detentions by ranchers near the border town of Douglas, Ariz. In some cases, ranchers with firearms have rounded up groups of migrants on their land and delivered them to federal law enforcement officials.

The issue has disturbed relations between the two countries in recent weeks, with Mexican Foreign Minister Rosario Green condemning the ranchers in increasingly strong language and Mexican media reporting shootings of migrants by vigilante ranchers. Mexican and U.S. officials said they have been unable to verify the media reports.

Addressing the two delegations at an annual high-level conference on cross-border issues, Green called on U.S. authorities to punish those who engage in acts of vigilantism. She said Mexico has retained a team of Washington lawyers to investigate whether it can sue some of the Arizona ranchers.

Mexico "will use all the political and legal resources at its disposal to guarantee that any violation of the rights and dignity of Mexicans is investigated and, if applicable, sanctioned," Green said.

By the end of the day Thursday, Green and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were striking a conciliatory tone on the issue, with both governments vowing to investigate the reports of violence against the migrants. Albright called the behavior "inadvisable, and violence against immigrants unacceptable."

Albright said U.S. authorities would strengthen efforts to monitor and, if warranted, prosecute the ranchers. But she and other U.S. officials also said they have the right to evict trespassers from their land. She said blame for the problem lies too with Mexican criminal organizations that make the smuggling of illegal immigrants across the Mexico-U.S. border big business.

The controversy in the area, inundated with border crossers, has been building for months but escalated in recent weeks with the appearance of an anonymous leaflet inviting winter vacationers to park their recreational vehicles on border ranches to help property owners guard against the migrants.

In a joint statement, the U.S. and Mexican delegations called on local property owners in the region "to cooperate with law enforcement authorities and to stop the inherently unsafe practices of private detention of migrants."

More than 125 Mexican and 200 U.S. officials attended the daylong event, which covered 14 subjects, ranging from immigration to trade, drug trafficking and environmental disputes. The talks have been an annual event for 17 years.

Other areas of dispute discussed at the meeting included a petition by Mexico for the United States to lift its ban on imports of Mexican tuna and Mexican complaints that the United States has failed to implement a key provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement that would permit Mexican truckers access to U.S. roads.

Green used the event to reaffirm Mexico's disagreement with the annual process known as "certification," in which the United States evaluates the counter-narcotics performance of countries that produce drugs or are used as transit points for traffickers.

The Clinton administration has routinely certified Mexico as fully cooperating in efforts to fight drugs. But the annual uncertainty over the U.S. decision irritates Mexico.

Los Angeles Times Articles