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Locals want congress to see grim truth about border areas

2/24/02

XAVIER ZARAGOZA/The Daily Dispatch

At the end of the congressional hearing Friday morning in Sierra Vista, a group of witnesses were asked by the panelists if the border along Arizona was better today than a year or two ago.

"Things have drastically improved in Douglas," said Douglas Mayor Ray Borane. "You don't see the crime or the illegal immigration you used to. But it has now all gone to the outskirts of town."

The Government Reform subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug policy and Human Resources, listened and commented on the testimony of seven witnesses, all of whom have been directly affected by drug and migrant smuggling through Cochise County.

"The crime rate has gone up during the last three years," said Cochise County Attorney Chris Roll.

Misdemeanors rose 50 percent while felonies rose 30 percent, Roll said.

"No, they are not better," said James J. Dickson, CEO of Copper Queen Community Hospital. "We're in a state of collapse.

Dickson said that hospitals in Cochise County are in trouble because of the uncompensated medical services they provide to illegal immigrants.

In essence INS policy is to blame, he said.

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever said the border was out of control. Dever said that his agency has had to attend to issues relating to illegal immigration, which often takes money and manpower.

"I thought that we had a checkpoint at the border and not twenty-five miles north of the border," Dever said.

Dever said the border seems to be pushed further and further north and into people's backyards.

Congressman Jim Kolbe, (R-Ariz.) had an issue with permanent checkpoints, saying they were illegal and ineffective.

Kolbe, who represents most of Southeastern Arizona, took the Border Patrol to task for not taking financial responsibility of injured illegal immigrants.

Current INS policy bars agents from taking injured migrants into custody.

Kolbe said the federal government bears responsibility for the migrants because it is the government who did not stop them at the border in the first place. Kolbe strongly opposes shifting the financial burden of injured migrants to local governments and institutions.

"Let's be honest, it's to avoid the medical costs, isn't it? Kolbe said about the policy.

"Yes," said David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector.

Aguilar cited prosecutorial discretion when distinguishing between apprehending a healthy migrant and an injured one.

One of the consequences is that a maternity ward had to close in Bisbee because of uncompensated costs, Dickson said.

"That means that in an area of 4,000 square miles there is no maternity care," Dickson said. "These woman now have to travel 100 miles."

Congressman John Shadegg, (R-Ariz.) said that many ranchers have been affected by uncontrolled illegal immigration in Cochise County, enumerating the cut fences and water lines, the trails of trash and feces created by northbound migrants.

Shadegg criticized the U.S. Customs' policy for not seizing assets of importers and truckers when drugs are seized in commercial vehicles.

After the hearing, one member of the audience told The Daily Dispatch that the U.S. should not be the HMO for the world.

"Kolbe is simply scape goating the Border Patrol," said John Siegal.

Many of the dignitaries on the hearing were taken on a tour of the border along the Douglas/Naco corridor so that they could get a first hand look at border issues.

One rancher, however, said they didn't see the whole picture.

"I'll taken them on a trip along the border so they can see what I see everyday and not the sanitized version they got," he said.

Friday's meeting is the sixth in a series of hearings. The subcommittee has held similar hearings on the Northern Border, San Diego, and one at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.