LAS CRUCES – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a gathering of border sheriffs, “We have a crisis here. We know it. The president knows it and we’re determined to do something about it.”
In his speech before the Southwest Border Sheriffs’ Coalition meeting in southern New Mexico on Wednesday, Sessions said, “We’ve got your back.” And he promised the Trump administration would crack down on transnational gangs and drug smugglers, and would have zero tolerance for illegal border crossings.
“You might even say we’ve got a new sheriff in town,” said Sessions, followed by applause.
His visit comes as the first of 4,000 National Guard troops begin to arrive on the border. Gov. Susana Martinez is sending 250 New Mexico National Guard soldiers to the border with 80 arriving this week. The Trump administration also touted new construction of a border barrier in Santa Teresa as a border wall, which replaces 20 miles of vehicle barriers with the massive steel fencing already used in Sunland Park.
Before his public comments, Sessions met privately with members of the coalition, which includes sheriffs from 31 departments in counties located within 25 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. “Our Sheriffs need to be heard by the cabinet members,” said Clint McDonald, executive director of the Southwest Border Sheriffs’ Coalition.
While McDonald welcomed the visit and support from Sessions, he said, “I don’t see a crisis as Washington says there’s a crisis.”
Views of the border vary among members of the coalition.
“The issues are the same but the solutions are different,” said Enrique “Kiki” Vigil, Sheriff of Doña Ana County. He said while cities near the border are safe, his deputies sometimes encounter incidents of human smuggling and drug trafficking in more remote areas.
But Vigil prefers that the federal government use technology to help secure the border instead of a wall.
“I will tell you a fence alone won’t do it,” said Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot of Arizona.
“You have to have a combination of tactical infrastructure, electronic infrastructure, boots on the ground and the prosecution side to it,” said Wilmot.
During his trip to New Mexico, Sessions also met with the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Albuquerque and Las Cruces and vowed to increase prosecutions of people who cross the border illegally. “If you break into our country, we will prosecute you,” said Sessions.
At their conference, sheriffs discussed the need for more federal money for local law enforcement to deal with the opioid crisis, mental illness and school violence, according to Vigil. “We need more funding out here to address issues internally here in the states,” he said.
“I would like to see our officers better equipped for tomorrow’s future,” said Sunland Park Police Chief Javier Guerra, who also attended the conference.
Guerra said his small police department deals more with crime that crosses state lines rather than the border. His officers recently helped break up a burglary ring storing stolen goods from nearby El Paso in Sunland Park.
Border cities in the U.S. consistently have some of the lowest crime rates in the country.
“Our community is very safe. We’re one of the safest regions in the country,” said state Rep. Angelica Rubio of Doña Ana County. She was among a group of border lawmakers who asked to meet with Sessions during his visit to Las Cruces. “He rejected our offer,” said Rubio.
Before Sessions’ speech, nearly 150 protesters gathered outside a hotel in Las Cruces.
“We get to claim who we are as a border and nobody else gets to do that for us, certainly not Jeff Sessions or the Trump administration,” said Johana Bencomo, community organizer with New Mexico CAFÉ, a faith-based, nonprofit group.
A small group of demonstrators tried to enter the banquet hall but were turned away chanting “No Justice. No Peace.”