AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Finally, this hour, we head to West Texas along Interstate 10 where the federal government runs an immigration checkpoint. It's one of 33 permanent checkpoints on highways across the Southwest from Texas to California. Technically, they're known as immigration stations, though some are as far as 75 miles from the Mexico border. And with illegal immigration at historic lows, the focus at these stations has shifted increasingly to drugs. This checkpoint in West Texas is catching lots of people with drugs, but now, because of a cut in federal funding, many will never see a jail cell. Andrew Becker of the Center for Investigative Reporting has our story from Hudspeth County, Texas.
ANDREW BECKER, BYLINE: On a sun-scorched stretch of Interstate 10, about 85 miles southeast of El Paso, two dozen tractor trailers are waiting to pass through a traffic checkpoint bristling with high-tech surveillance equipment. Border Patrol agents with drug-detecting dogs sweep through the area, sniffing for contraband and smuggled migrants. As many as 20,000 eastbound cars, trucks and buses pass through here each day.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible) station copy up here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right.
BECKER: At a small command center, a tall sheriff's deputy in a cowboy hat has arrived to take a man to the local jail. Almost every day, deputies from the tiny high desert town of Sierra Blanca collect suspects from the checkpoint. The man is suspected of having outstanding warrants.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Put your hands behind your back. Turn around. I'm taking you to Hudspeth County jail for processing, you understand?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Unintelligible).
BECKER: At the jail, dispatchers are busy handling calls, and the cells are packed, mostly with people caught at the immigration checkpoint. But it's not what you think.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Everybody here because of the checkpoint. I'm from California too. I got my weed card. They got me in here for a paraphernalia charge. I'll be out in about a month.
BECKER: This man shouts from a holding cell, saying he was picked up for marijuana, and that's the case with most of the people who pass through the jail here. They're not foreigners who entered the country illegally. They're not drug mules or cartel operatives. They're U.S. citizens caught with small amounts of drugs as they drive across Texas. Eight out of 10 people busted at this checkpoint are Americans according to government data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The parade of road trippers arrested here includes celebrities, says Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West.
SHERIFF ARVIN WEST: We've had Willie Nelson. We've had Snoop Dogg or Lion or whatever the hell he goes by. We've had that little pompous Fiona Apple.
BECKER: West says drug busts have skyrocketed since the Border Patrol expanded its presence here. And while he relishes his role in enforcing the state's tough drug laws no matter what, it might be too much of a good thing.
WEST: We're arresting people, but we're arresting people for the U.S. government, for the federal government at my local taxpayers' cost, and that ain't right for them to burden this cost.
BECKER: Here's how it's supposed to work. The overburdened U.S. attorney for West Texas often turns to local authorities to handle low-level busts made by federal agents at the checkpoints. So the Justice Department designed a program to reimburse police and prosecutors in the four states that border Mexico if they agree to handle the busts as local cases. District attorney Jaime Esparza says the program got off to a good start more than a decade ago.
JAIME ESPARZA: I think it was a program that worked for everybody. We had a good partnership, and we were being paid for the work we were doing.
BECKER: The money from the Feds did more than just cover the costs for checkpoint cases. It helped keep the lights on in Sierra Blanca. Esparza says it was a fair exchange until the Justice Department slashed reimbursements in half, sticking local governments with the bill.
ESPARZA: They're breaking the promise they made to us to reimburse us for the work that we do. They can't expect local counties along the southern border to carry their water for them.
BECKER: Justice Department officials declined requests for interviews. In a written statement, a spokesman said tight federal budgets are forcing officials to make difficult funding decisions. Local authorities, he said, have discretion to spend other federal grant money to support prosecutions. Meanwhile, cases keep rolling in. Just outside the county lockup, Sheriff West is sitting on a shaded bench talking with a woman who's here to post bail for her son.
WEST: Do a $3,500 bond on him. The bond is already in there. And get him out quick. They've been here all morning waiting.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you.
WEST: My pleasure, ma'am. Beat the hell out of him when you get him home.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, you know...
BECKER: When the front door to the low-slung jail building swung open a few feet away, the pungent odor from two tons of marijuana floated out. West says a lot of the weed comes from states that have legalized medical marijuana. From time to time, the Border Patrol does snag large drug loads. But it's the mounting small-time busts and their growing cost to the county that have the sheriff in a bind.
WEST: It's a financial issue now. I'm at the crossroads of do I put the bad guy away or do I bankrupt this county? And the county is my first interest.
BECKER: Just a few weeks ago, Sheriff West cut the cord and stopped accepting Border Patrol checkpoint busts for prosecution. This is welcome news to some locals who say arresting people with small bags of weed is a waste of time and money. But for a man sworn to uphold zero tolerance drug laws, it was a touch choice to stop taking those federal cases.
WEST: My men are going to have to sit there and watch people that were trying to bring in drugs illegally or trying to bring in drugs, period, into this country, and I mean even from California. They're just going to walk down the road. They're going to walk away from it.
BECKER: And Hudspeth isn't the only county to make that choice. Two other counties in South Texas have stopped taking federal checkpoint cases, citing cost. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Becker.
CORNISH: Our story was co-reported by G.W. Schultz and produced in cooperation with the Center for Investigative Reporting.