LEITF Fact Sheet: The Role of Local Law Enforcement in an Effective Border Response
December 23, 2022
Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force Focus Point
Over the last ten years, cyclical increases in migrant arrivals at the Southwest border have posed major logistical, humanitarian, and security concerns. Border security and immigration policy are chiefly under the jurisdiction of the federal government. However, with border encounters reaching record totals in recent years, there has been growing interest in the role of state and local actors at the border.
Local law enforcement along the border do play a crucial – if sometimes misunderstood – part in responding to arriving migrants and ensuring the safety and prosperity of their communities. Relying in part on statements from multiple law enforcement leaders along the Southwest border, this fact sheet explores how local law enforcement agencies are engaged in an effective border response.
What Role Does Local Law Enforcement Play at the Border?
Local law enforcement officials offer a vital perspective on border issues and play a crucial part in ensuring public safety throughout the border region. This role includes coordination and communication with CBP via programs like Operation Stonegarden, collaborating with ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) to prevent human trafficking and apprehend traffickers, and assisting in preventing and investigating migrant deaths and casualty events along the border.
Concerning the importance of the local law enforcement perspective at the border, former Pharr (Texas) Police Chief and Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force (LEITF) Co-Chair Andy Harvey said, “Listening to those of us that live, work, and protect communities, to truly understand and make more informed decisions, is vital.”
Welcoming Migrants and Cross-Border Trade and Travel
In a November 2022 conversation on border policy, Chief Harvey described how often migrants who are smuggled across the border are left waiting in “abandoned homes, or trailers . . . not knowing what their future is.” He described how local law enforcement must respond to this situation: “We have to deal with it, both on the humanitarian side and on the public safety side.” When smuggling operations go wrong, it is often up to local law enforcement to help save and process arriving migrants and connect them to CBP and local shelter networks.
Law enforcement also plays a key role encouraging and welcoming safe and orderly legal trade and travel at ports of entry, which is a crucial part of many border economies. Santa Cruz County (Arizona) Sheriff and LEITF member David Hathaway noted, “My county has the largest port of entry into Mexico from Arizona. . . . We have an important relationship with Mexico culturally and economically.”
Operation Stonegarden is a part of the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP) program administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The program “supports enhanced cooperation and coordination” between CBP, Border Patrol, and state, local, and tribal law enforcement entities. In FY 2022, Congress appropriated $90 million for the program for the purpose of furthering border security by building local law enforcement capacity to assist with drug seizures and arrests (including immigration arrests) along the border.
Law enforcement agencies use Operation Stonegarden funding for personnel-related costs, including overtime, travel, and per diem costs associated with deployment of personnel to border areas, as well as vehicle and equipment costs. The program is demonstrative of the extensive collaboration between federal and local law enforcement at the border.
Investigating Human Trafficking and Other Cross-Border Crimes
Human trafficking (which must be understood as distinct from human smuggling) is a prosecutable federal offense which occurs when a victim is compelled through force, fraud, or coercion to be subjected to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or a commercial sex act. The border is a site of significant human trafficking concern, and local law enforcement play a critical role in responding to and investigating trafficking leads, including by coordinating with federal agencies.
In particular, HSI — the principal investigative arm of DHS — works closely with local law enforcement on human trafficking investigations. The Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) provides a platform for federal and local law enforcement to exchange intelligence and information concerning investigations into human trafficking and other issues.
Preventing and Investigating Migrant Deaths
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has labeled the Southwest Border “the deadliest land crossing in the world,” and Fiscal Year 2022 set a record for migrant deaths at the border. U.S. Border Patrol are chiefly responsible for responding to migrants in distress, and have special units trained to go on humanitarian and search and rescue missions. Local law enforcement assist collecting data on missing migrants and assist with investigations into mass casualty events. Local law enforcement organizations are eligible for grants to assist in the reporting of missing persons along the border.
Importance of Separating Federal and Local Law Enforcement Actions
While police chiefs, sheriffs, and other local law enforcement play a critical role in ensuring public safety along the border, LEITF leaders have stressed the importance of keeping that role distinct from the federal government’s border security and immigration responsibilities.
Border communities are among the safest in the country, per FBI crime data. One reason that local law enforcement agencies along the border have been so successful at fostering safe communities is because there has been a clear distinction drawn between the responsibilities of Customs and Border Protection and local law enforcement. Some local law enforcement officials have expressed concern that blurring the lines between local and federal enforcement authorities at the border can undermine trust between immigrant communities and divert attention and resources from more urgent priorities. As the LEITF principles state, “When state and local law enforcement agencies are required to enforce federal immigration laws, undocumented residents may become fearful that they or people they know will be exposed to immigration officials and are less likely to cooperate.”
In a taking part in the November 2022 discussion of border policy, Chief Harvey noted, “We have to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can, from a law enforcement and policing side, to make sure that we minimize fear so that we can be made aware of [crimes like human trafficking] happening in our communities.” Chief Harvey specified one effective strategy for local law enforcement at the border is to engage in “community policing,” which emphasizes building trust in immigrant communities and drawing clear distinctions between federal immigration enforcement functions and local police work.
Sheriff Hathaway has also highlighted concerns about having state and local enforcement actors take on federal border security responsibilities. In 2021, when asked to sponsor Arizona National Guard troops to come to support border security efforts, Sheriff Hathaway – along with multiple other law enforcement officials in the state – declined the offer. “The optics of having the National Guard here would be bad,” Sheriff Hathaway said, “It makes [the border] seem like it’s militarized. It’s not a war zone . . . the imagery will discourage anyone from coming into our community for economic purposes.”
Local law enforcement agencies play a crucial role in ensuring border security and maintaining safe and prosperous border communities. The work is complex, requiring effective communication and coordination with federal officials while maintaining clearly defined and distinct duties. Blurring the lines between local and federal enforcement authorities at the border can have deleterious effects on public safety. At the same time, more effort should be put into establishing open lines of communication. Doña Ana (New Mexico) Sheriff and LEITF member Kim Stewart said: “We need true communications interoperability. Let’s put money into helping the 37 counties on the southern border communicate with one another and the feds. All the intel in the world is worthless if we can’t talk to each other.”