Jun. 27, 2013
As the U.S. Senate took its historic vote on immigration reform on Thursday, another significant problem at the U.S.-Mexico border is largely being ignored. The U.S. Justice Department has drastically cut reimbursements for local authorities who prosecute drug smugglers caught at the border.
A report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that since 2002, the federal government provided about $300 million to the four border states as part of the Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative. The Justice Department didn’t request any money for the program this year, but Congress appropriated $4.6 million anyway. That’s down from $31 million in 2010.
Last month, the department announced it would reimburse local governments only for prosecution, not detention.
Even though illegal crossings are at their lowest level since the 1970s, the Senate has voted for an enormous infusion of cash for border security — $38 billion in addition to the $8 billion in the original proposal. This would add 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, more than double the number now employed, add 700 miles of fencing along the 1,954-mile border and pay for an array of high-tech devices.
It’s ludicrous to consider this investment without also providing the money to prosecute and incarcerate thousands of smugglers who feed the American drug habit.
While the focus is on illegal entry, drug smuggling dwarfs that concern. Between Oct. 1, 2011, and Sept. 30, 2012, agents based in El Centro apprehended 23,916 people. Nearly 22,000 of them were carrying marijuana, cocaine or other drugs.
Border Patrol agents seized 14 tons of marijuana in September 2011 near Salton
In 2011, agents in an Imperial County checkpoint near the Salton Sea found 14 tons of marijuana in a truck headed to Los Angeles. Earlier this month, El Centro agents stropped a car carrying more than 6 pounds of methamphetamine.
However, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has lowered the threshold for prosecution to ridiculous levels. Law enforcement officials told the Center for Investigative Reporting that first-time offenders caught with 200 pounds or less of marijuana have a good chance driving back to Mexico with a slap on the wrist and a fingerprint record. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates the value of marijuana at $1,000 per pound. Under this formula, a smuggler can attempt to bring in $200,000 worth of narcotics and face slim consequences.
BY THE NUMBERS
Drugs seized at local border checkpoints from 2005 to 2011.
Indio station (east of the Salton Sea): 72,845.95 pounds of marijuana in 579 seizures, 4,082.91 pounds of cocaine in 114 seizures, 392.37 pounds of methamphetamine in 159 seizures and 135.08 pounds of heroin in 24 seizures.
El Centro station: 42,373.88 pounds of marijuana in 231 seizures, 90.3 pounds of cocaine in 12 seizures, 73.09 pounds of methamphetamine in 37 seizures and 2.97 of heroin in five seizures.
Calexico station: 118,867.74 pounds of marijuana in 887 seizures, 663.5 pounds of cocaine in 50 seizures, 198.08 pounds of methamphetamine in 88 seizures and 60.65 of heroin in 13 seizures.
Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said the administration has requested $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2014 to fight Mexican drug cartels and for law enforcement along the border.
“Due to the current funding constraints, the department has had to make difficult choices regarding funding for other programs, like the Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative, which has to be assessed in accordance with the department’s overall southwest border law enforcement priorities,” Hornbuckle said in a statement.
The position leaves cash-strapped border counties with difficult choices on how much of their local resources they should spend on prosecution and detention. It should not be that way. It’s clearly a federal problem and the Obama administration should fully fund the costs imposed on border states.
The Desert Sun supports a secure border as part of the immigration reform package. But illicit drugs tear at the fabric of American society and stopping the flow across our border also should be a top priority. We have a great opportunity before us to catch the smugglers and weaken the drug cartels. Take full advantage.