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A Drastic Step Against Illegal Immigration

September 14, 2005|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

The governors of New Mexico and Arizona recently declared a "state of emergency" over what they characterized as a growing wave of illegal immigration, drawing national attention to frustrations that have reached a boiling point in those border states.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano accuse the federal government of negligence and inattention in dealing with illegal immigration-related problems gripping counties that border the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.

Question: What does it mean to declare a "state of emergency?"

Answer: A state of emergency means something so serious has happened that government must step in to send money or resources to the affected area. Emergency declarations are usually made by states in response to natural disasters such as fires or floods, and are often accompanied by requests for federal disaster relief.

Q: Has California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also declared an emergency along the border?

A: Not so far, though he has been pressured to do so. Schwarzenegger makes two points: he says the situation along California's border is not as severe as it may be for other states -- indeed, the U.S. Border Patrol reports that arrests are down from previous years. Also, the governor says the California Emergency Services Act, which authorizes such declarations, does not specify illegal immigration as a potential emergency cause.

Q: What do the emergency declarations bring to each state?

A: Money. In the case of New Mexico, it made $750,000 in state emergency funding immediately available to the counties of Dona Ana, Luna, Grant and Hidalgo -- among the nation's busiest gateways for illegal immigration. Richardson also pledged an additional $1 million from a separate emergency pool.

In Arizona, the declaration freed $1.5 million from the governor's $4-million emergency fund for use in Cochise, Pima, Santa Cruz and Yuma counties.

In addition to allowing the governors to quickly tap emergency funds, the declarations empower them to marshal equipment, personnel and other resources.

Q: Is either state seeking federal aid?

A: No. There is no expectation that a state's emergency will trigger matching federal dollars, though spokespeople for Richardson and Napolitano say they hope their declarations spur the federal government to better control the border.

Q: Under what authority did the governors make these emergency declarations?

A: Laws in New Mexico and Arizona grant the governors broad powers to declare emergencies and direct resources toward man-made or natural disasters that threaten physical or economic harm. In both states, officials say there is an urgent need to combat the violence, drug trafficking and destruction of property associated with illegal immigration.

A spokesman for Richardson said the governor decided on the spot to make the emergency declaration after a helicopter and ground tour of a border area near Columbus, N.M.

Q: Does the governor of California have the same power?

A: On that, there is some debate. Section 8550 of the Emergency Services Act says the state has a responsibility "to mitigate the effects of natural, man-made, or war-caused emergencies which result in conditions of disaster or in extreme peril to life, property, and the resources of the state, and generally to protect the health and safety and preserve the lives and property of the people." It then empowers the governor "to expend any appropriation" to support the law.

Some lawmakers believe that illegal immigration issues could be included in that broad definition, though it is not specifically mentioned. A group of Republican lawmakers from San Diego County have said they intend to propose legislation that would give the governor explicit authority to declare an emergency because of illegal immigration.

Q: What evidence was there in New Mexico and Arizona that emergency conditions existed?

A: Officials in both states say illegal border crossings and apprehensions are on the rise as authorities crack down on illegal entry into Texas and California. In New Mexico, for instance, there have been 65,000 arrests of illegal immigrants since January along the border in Luna County, an amount that exceeds the total for all of last year. And in the Tucson area in Arizona, there have been 193 illegal immigrant deaths so far this fiscal year, compared with 141 for all of fiscal year 2004-05.

But officials say the declarations also were driven by anecdotal evidence from ranchers, business owners and community leaders. At a town hall meeting earlier this year in New Mexico, residents told of being robbed, shot at and intimidated by smugglers. Some told of finding drugs stashed on their property, others of the mounting expense of rebuilding livestock fences and replacing cattle let loose by migrants coming into the country illegally.

Q: Are there similar issues along the border in California?

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