Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Brownsville Herald - Law enforcement agencies seek border-crossers inside refuge

The Brownsville Herald - Online Edition

Last weekend’s operation resulted in the detainment of nine undocumented immigrants, one immigrant-trafficking arrest and vehicle and traffic violations.

The law enforcement team issued state and federal citations totaling $1,272 in fines.

The officials say that because it is dangerous, they hope their efforts will deter undocumented immigrants and immigrant traffickers from the using the refuge as a haven to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

His officers detain about five to 10 undocumented immigrants per month, said Richard Johnston, regional law enforcement officer for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Using the area as a border crossing path has safety, legal and environmental implications.

“By its very nature, the refuge is not the safest place for someone to be running around,” Johnston said.

He said that law enforcement officers frequently tend to find immigrants wandering dehydrated on the refuge after they get lost and disoriented.

Tourist visitors to the refuge usually know to come prepared with water and walking shoes, but immigrants may be putting themselves in danger by allowing alien traffickers — known as coyotes — to escort them across.

Johnston said that people’s safety is a main concern for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was the reason for last weekend’s operation.

In addition to endangering themselves, illegal immigrants may also hurt the refuge’s wildlife by clearing their own paths through brush and trees, said Ken Merritt, project leader for the South Texas Refuge Complex, which includes the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

In addition, those who illegally cross the river into the refuge often leave trash behind, he said.

“The trash load is incredible,” Merritt said. “Just because of the numbers of people coming across, it is a really big issue from a natural resource standpoint.”

Joel Rivera, a deputy constable for Precinct 1, was on-hand during last weekend’s operation to issue state citations when needed.

“Most people in criminal justice will agree that aggressively patrolling an area doesn’t eliminate the crime,” Rivera said. “It just displaces the crime.”

Using wildlife refuge land to cross the border is not just an issue at Santa Ana, Johnston said.

Stretching across 89 miles of the Rio Grande there are between 40 to 50 tracts of wildlife refuge land, Johnston said.

About one-third of the Rio Grande Valley’s border with Mexico is public land, Johnston said.

But efforts were concentrated on Santa Ana because it is the only piece of public borderland open to visitors, he said.

Johnston said U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers want to prevent potential “negative situations” between the visiting public and an undocumented immigrant.

For example, ,Johnston said that a couple of years ago he found two immigrants drunk.

They told him they used alcohol to get the courage to cross the river.

“They (the immigrants) encountered a family, but the family was extremely uncomfortable,” Johnston said. “You don’t come to the refuge knowing that you’ll run into two intoxicated people.”

Such situations are not common, but there is potential for it to happen, Johnston said.


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