El Paso's Sheriff Goes After Illegal Immigrants

This year alone, the sheriff and his deputies have reported more than 800 undocumented immigrants to the U.S. Border Patrol. Are they overstepping their authority, or just getting tough on crime?

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In El Paso County, Texas, the Sheriff's Department is being criticized for its enforcement of federal immigration law. Some residents accused deputies of overstepping their authority. The sheriff says he's just getting tough on crime.

Sarah Bush reports.

SARAH BUSH reporting:

Deputy Eileen Lopez cruises past dilapidated trailers in East El Paso. Hand-lettered signs advertise tortillas and maize.

(Soundbite of police dispatch radio)

BUSH: Many of the communities Lopez patrols lie within a few hundred yards of the Rio Grande. Nearly everyone here is Hispanic.

Deputy EILEEN LOPEZ (El Paso County Sheriff's Department): My primary duty is just to make sure everybody's okay, you know, make sure that the citizens, you know, aren't in need of, you know, any kind of emergency assistance, and that's it. I'm not really concerned with what their status is here in the United States. That's not a priority.

BUSH: Lopez waves at people passing by. She says she depends on their trust when patrolling remote locations. But lately, residents in outlying communities have felt anything but trust for local authorities. They accuse deputies of enforcing immigration law. Pulling people over for minor traffic violations, asking for their license and registration, and if they don't have it, citing them and detaining them until the Border Patrol arrives. It's instilled fear in a community where many residents are in the U.S. illegally.

Mr. RAY CARRILLO (Mexican Immigrant, El Paso County, Texas): People are not going to the clinics. If they're sick, then they'd rather stay home.

BUSH: Ray Carrillo came from Mexico and is now a U.S. citizen. He's owned a welding business in East El Paso for 20 years.

Mr. CARRILLO: My business went down like at least 50 percent, and I spoke to the guys that owns like groceries, and the business went down, too. And they were pissed off at the Sheriff. I mean, because it's killing all the business, man.

BUSH: Sheriff Leo Samaniego says he's just being tough on border-related crime.

Sheriff LEO SAMANIEGO (El Paso County, Texas): Here's a person driving a van, for example, with 15 people stuffed in it. We're just supposed to look the other way? They're committing a federal crime, right, of transporting illegal aliens.

BUSH: Samaniego says in such an instance, they're obligated to call the Border Patrol, but he says they would not have stopped the van unless the driver had first committed a traffic violation. Officers are allowed to stop someone for probable cause.

Sheriff SAMANIEGO: We don't stop anybody because they look like they may be illegal. Just because I'm Hispanic, well, 80-some percent of the population of El Paso is Hispanic.

BUSH: According to the Texas American Civil Liberties Union, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office has reported more than 800 undocumented to the Border Patrol since January. Executive director Will Harrell says his concern is not just racial profiling.

Mr. WILL HARRELL (Texas American Civil Liberties Union): Decent and professional law enforcement officials understand that in order to investigate and prosecute violent crimes and dangerous acts to protect the public safety, you need to sustain a trusting relationship with the community. You need to sustain open lines of communication.

BUSH: To that, Sheriff Samaniego says his officers work hard to build community trust, and that includes reporting suspected criminals to the border control.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BUSH: At the El Paso County Commissioners Court, people wait for session to begin. Topping the agenda is a resolution limiting the sheriff's ability to enforce immigration law.

Mr. SALVADOR GOMEZ (El Paso resident): I am not in favor of this resolution.

BUSH: Private citizen Salvador Gomez represents those from El Paso whose backyards are a way station for border crossers. They fear trespassers and drug smugglers.

Mr. GOMEZ: Just because one of you brings it up doesn't mean that it coincides with the majority.

BUSH: The commissioners postpone the decision. Regardless of the outcome, however, Sheriff Samaniego is considering training a few units in immigration law, allowing them to identify and process illegal border crossers. He says it would help clear up confusion as to the limits of their authority.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Bush.

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