Controversy subsides around border law enforcement grants in El Paso
By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau
Article Launched: 05/18/2008 11:32:20 AM MDT

AUSTIN - Texas has awarded nearly $20 million in grants this year to local police and sheriffs departments to continue border security operations that started more than two years ago.
In El Paso, where local departments have been awarded more than $2 million this year, the operations have received less criticism recently than they did initially when some in the community charged that officers were targeting immigrant communities.

"Things are changing," said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. "It's been a long and a slow process, but these things are changing in a very positive way."

Gov. Rick Perry began funding state-led border security operations 2006, and so far has sent about $34 million in federal grants to local law enforcement agencies for border-crime fighting, said spokeswoman Krista Piferrer.

Last year, lawmakers approved another $110 million Perry requested in state money for the operations. Much of it went to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Some also was allocated for grants to pay local officers overtime to patrol the border.

Piferrer said $19.9 million has been awarded to local police and sheriffs.

Deputy Jesse Tovar, spokesman for the sheriff's office, said the focus of the department's border security efforts is not illegal immigration.

Most of the $2 million the department has been awarded is set aside for increased patrols that make officers more visible, deter crime and improve response



Occasionally, Tovar said, the department conducts checkpoints to see whether drivers are licensed and insured.

"We really don't have them as much as people would think," he said.

The El Paso Police Department is also participating in border operations. Sgt. Robert Gomez said the department has used its funds to reduce auto theft and conduct checks of southbound traffic at the international bridges.

"They focused more on types of crimes and where we could be most effective," Gomez said.

The state funds are supporting Operation Border Star, the current iteration of border efforts that started with former El Paso Sheriff Leo Samaniego's brainchild, Operation Linebacker.

That operation sent shockwaves through much of the immigrant community in El Paso when deputies set up checkpoints and allegedly asked drivers and their passengers about their citizenship status.

"The fear factor was definitely there," said Pamela Vaughan, a leader with Border Interfaith.

Reports showed that deputies were turning over undocumented immigrants to U.S. Border Patrol much more often than they were arresting criminals.

Some border lawmakers called on Perry to rein in the border sheriffs and stop them from using money to enforce immigration laws, which is a federal responsibility.

Samaniego said his officers were not enforcing federal immigration laws or targeting undocumented immigrants. Still, critics petitioned for his ouster.

Garcia and Vaughan said, however, that Samaniego began meeting with community leaders and agreed checkpoints would not be conducted near schools or during rush hour, that old vehicles would not be targeted and that deputies would not use abusive language or ask for proof of citizenship.

Since Samaniego's death late last year, they said interim Sheriff Jimmy Apodaca has continued that agreement, and dialog with the community is improving.

"We haven't seen the amount of cases or the patterns like we were seeing a couple years ago," Garcia said.

Vaughn said those in the immigrant community - those here illegally and legally - who had feared reporting crimes and risking seeing their friends or family members deported, are feeling safer.

And, she said, they are optimistic that the new sheriff elected in November will continue the trend.

"With more meetings and more dialog," she said, " I think in a short period of time the community will see change and feel change."

Brandi Grissom can be reached at bgrissom@elpasotimes.com; (512) 479-6606.