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Beefed Up Border Pledged

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    Gov. Bill Richardson declared a state of emergency along New Mexico's 180-mile border with Mexico on Friday, pledging $1.75 million to beef up law enforcement and tackle increasing crime.
    "Recent developments have convinced me this action is necessary— including violence directed at law enforcement, damage to property and livestock, increased evidence of drug smuggling, and an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants," Richardson said in a prepared statement.

  • Governor's Words Rile Mexicans; Border Security Drives Debate(Aug. 16)
  •     He toured the area near the busy border town of Columbus by helicopter and on the ground Friday before announcing the new initiatives.
        The Mexican government, which has long opposed any increased border fencing, immediately criticized Richardson's actions.
        Southwestern New Mexico residents praised the moves and said even more are needed.
        "This is a great beginning," said Luna County Commissioner Rick Holdridge by phone. "What the governor's done is right on the money."
        He and others said a broader solution is needed to address the problems caused by hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who cross the border into New Mexico every year.
        He was one of 135 residents of the Rodeo and Animas areas in Hidalgo County who recently signed petitions asking Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., along with Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., for immediate action.
        Rodeo rancher Richard A. Winkler said he and his neighbors are being burglarized regularly by border crossers who take food and other essentials.
        "I'm really tired of it," he said in a telephone interview Friday. "It's an epidemic."
        Richardson signed an executive order declaring a disaster in Doña Ana, Luna, Grant and Hidalgo counties and making $750,000 in state emergency money immediately available to local governments there.
        Another $1 million in discretionary federal dollars allocated to New Mexico two years ago also will be used to tackle border problems, said Richardson spokesman Billy Sparks.
        The $1.75 million overall will pay for:
       
  • Increased state and local law enforcement;
       
  • A new state Homeland Security field office that should be up and running within two weeks, probably in Luna County;
       
  • A fence to protect the 20-acre Columbus Stockyards, which lie right on the border and, with only decaying wood barriers, are an easy place for illegal crossings into the United States.
        The governor told the state Department of Agriculture and Livestock Board to assess the security and safety of livestock in the border region within 15 days.
        "I'm taking these serious steps because of the urgency of the situation and, unfortunately, because of the total inaction and lack of resources from the federal government and Congress," Richardson said.
        Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, would not comment on Richardson's initiatives but said increased Border Patrol funding has made "extraordinary progress" possible in the Southwest.
        Mexico ordered its consul in Albuquerque to meet with New Mexico officials "to promote appropriate actions by the officials of both countries."
        "The Mexican government considers that some of the New Mexico government's statements are generalizations which don't jibe with the spirit of cooperation and understanding needed to address border problems," Mexico's Foreign Relations Department said in a statement.
        Bingaman praised Richardson's moves and said he agrees with the governor.
        "I share his frustration," he said in a telephone interview. "We have been doing what was possible, but our efforts in Washington to get the U.S.-Mexico border made a priority have not been entirely successful."
        Bingaman, who will visit the Deming Border Patrol Station on Monday, said more resources for local law enforcement and federal agencies are needed.
        Domenici, along with Bingaman, said comprehensive immigration reform is vital.
        "The important thing to realize is that money and fences alone are not going to solve the illegal immigration problem," Domenici said in a prepared statement.
        Columbus, with about 1,800 people, is the closest settlement to the only 24-hour border crossing in New Mexico— the Columbus Port of Entry.
        With one officer on his force, a $152,000 annual budget and a 24-hour-a-day role as the first line of defense against drug and human smuggling, Columbus Police Chief Clare May has called his situation desperate.
        Richardson said he asked the Mexican government to bulldoze the mostly abandoned town of Las Chepas, on the Mexican side of the border near Columbus.
        The town has been a popular border jumping spot for years. For $5, would-be immigrants can hop a bus in Palomas and be deposited in Las Chepas, where a handful of stores sell jugs of water and Gatorade, juices and food for their trip.
        Many wait in abandoned houses— graffiti-covered concrete shells— until nightfall, when they can make their trip under the cover of darkness and in cooler temperatures.
        Winkler, the Rodeo area rancher, said the federal government should close the border by putting patrols every quarter-mile.
        Pearce, who is holding 17 community meetings on immigration this month, said he has asked the Department of Homeland Security to reimburse residents for property damage.
        "We are dedicating every resource available to us as legislators, trying to galvanize action to make our country more secure," he said in a telephone interview.
       
    Journal staff writer Leslie Linthicum and The Associated Press contributed to this report.