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Law and border

August 18, 2005

FRUSTRATED WITH THE INABILITY of the federal government to deal with the growing lawlessness at the border, the governors of New Mexico and Arizona have declared states of emergency. Although both governors face border problems particular to their states -- as do the governors of Texas and California -- the common theme to their complaints is the negligence and inattention of the federal government.

The root of the problem in Arizona is uneven enforcement at the border, which has turned the state into the main gateway for illegal immigration into the country. Since Oct. 1, 2004, 510,000 people trying to cross the border between Yuma and Tucson have been arrested -- about 1,600 a day. By declaring an emergency, Gov. Janet Napolitano freed $1.5 million in state funds to assist the four counties most affected by illegal immigration. Given the magnitude of the problem, that amount is a pittance. Yet it should help mend a few fences and pay for overtime for local law enforcement agencies.

On the New Mexico border, the main worry is that the illegal entry of would-be workers is contributing to an upsurge of violence. Ranchers say thieves are stealing their cattle and other property, and local authorities report being shot at by drug smugglers. Gov. Bill Richardson said the emergency declaration would make $1.75 million available for local law enforcement.

Both governors have an excellent record on immigration issues. Napolitano was one of the first governors to call for a guest-worker program, and under Richardson, New Mexico is one of the few states where immigrants can apply for a driver's license without showing proof of legal residency.

By tapping into their disaster funds to mitigate a problem that belongs in federal hands, both have done the nation a service. Now Washington needs to do its part. On Wednesday, U.S. officials announced a plan to share more information with Mexico on migrant smuggling. And the Senate is scheduled to consider two competing bills on illegal immigration (each sponsored, not coincidentally, by an Arizona Republican).

These bills should be the Senate's first priority when it returns from recess. With their declarations of emergency, Napolitano and Richardson have highlighted the regional costs of illegal immigration. But it is an issue that defies local solutions. Only a sensible national policy will solve the border problems in New Mexico and Arizona.

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