The new border security initiative announced by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in March 2009 stresses DHS collaboration with local law enforcement through a variety of operations. Introducing the new initiative in testimony to the Senate’s homeland security committee, DHS Secretary Napolitano said that through the Operation Stonegarden DHS will “enhance state, local and tribal law enforcement operations and assets along the border.”
Operation Stonegarden is a federal assistance program ($60 million in 2009) for local law enforcement that is limited to borderland counties. The assistance is not general funding but for additional personnel and overtime pay for homeland security operations. A major problem, as in all DHS federal/local programs, is that funding is not accompanied with internal regulations specifying exactly what the homeland security funds can be used for.
As a result, Operation Stonegarden recipients can use DHS’ own broad mission – “protecting nation against dangerous good and people” – to justify their own extra expenses picking local drug users and illegal immigrants. Under Operation Stonegarden, dangerous people are defined as “criminal aliens” but criminal aliens include all illegal immigrants, according to the operational contract. Similarly, all illegal drugs are included in the search for “dangerous drugs.”
Since the program was initiated shortly after the DHS’s creation, the rationale for the program has evolved – from a “first-responder” to terrorism program to a border security program focused on drugs and illegal immigrants. Officially it is a program of DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide grants “designated localities to enhance cooperation and coordination among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in a joint mission to secure the United States borders along routes of ingress…”
The program elapsed in 2005 but was renewed in 2006 under DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. Writing in HS Today, a securities industry magazine, Joshua Filler, CEO of Filler Security Strategies and original director of DHS’s local coordination officer, applauded the relaunching of the operation, pointing to the example of funding in Maine to explain its counterterrorism objective.
“While Maine itself isn’t likely to be the target of a terrorist attack or other catastrophic event, it could be used as an infiltration point or launching pad by terrorists to strike other parts of the US—in fact, that’s essentially what happened on 9/11. If Maine and small northern border states are to receive federal funds, which they should, this is one of the best uses of those funds since it will have the biggest antiterrorist impact with a limited budgetary impact,” wrote Filler. Operation Stonegarden is no longer couched in counterterrorism rhetoric. Basically, it functions as one of the many ICE and Border Patrol programs aimed at increasing cooperation with local police forces, with program recipients being limited to borderland law enforcement agencies. As such, complaints about Operation Stonegarden reflect the kind of criticism leveled against such ICE programs as Operation Community Shield, the 287(g) Program, and Secure Communities, namely that involving local police in immigration enforcement leads to racial profiling and increasing community distrust of law enforcement.
The sheriffs' departments that receive Operation Stonegarden funding don't so much focus on the "routes of ingress" into the United States as on the immigrants and illegal drug users in their own communities.
This was the case in Otero County, in southeastern New Mexico, where sheriff deputies used the Stonegarden grant to hunt for illegal immigrants in the Chaparral, a largely Latino settlement on the edge of El Paso. In September 2008 a federal judge issued an injunction barring the sheriff's department from enforcing immigration laws through the Operation Stonegarden.
The injunction specifically bars the department from "engaging in unlawful discriminatory activities and racial profiling for the purpose of identifying and apprehending undocumented and illegal immigrants pursuant to Operation Stonegarden." In addition, the order bars the department from "unlawful retaliation, coercion, harassment, threats and intimidation," and tells the department not to conduct "unlawful community-wide raids targeted low-income Latino residents in Otero County."
In addition to receiving Operation Stonegarden funding, Otero County is cashing in on the immigrant crackdown boom by way of two county-owned prisons that house ICE and U.S. Marshall Service detainees. Both are operated by Management & Training Corporation, a Utah-based private prison firm.
While the founding premise of Operation Stonegarden was that the borderlands – north and south – were the gateway regions for potential terrorists and therefore needed increased vigilance, the practice of involving local police has focused DHS resources on borderland residents at least as much as transients.
The program is also controversial in the northern borderlands, where local police have become increasingly involved in the Border Patrol’s crackdown on immigrants and illegal drugs. In Washington State, a county sheriff has declined Stonegarden funding, saying that immigration law enforcement is not a public safety priority. The sheriff in Jefferson County in Washington, near the northern border, declined to apply for a Stonegarden grant in 2009.
Sheriff Michael Brasfield complained that the language in the grant application that described undocumented immigrants as "criminal" was insensitive and felt the overall document was unacceptable. “Unfortunately, the inclusion of language describing illegal aliens as 'criminal aliens' that 'are drawn here by criminal activities', coupled with the requirement participating agencies (described as 'Friendly Forces') agree to detain illegal aliens and turn them over to the Border Patrol, makes the overall document unacceptable," Brasfield wrote in his Jan. 12 letter.
Echoing the common complaint that Border Patrol and local police in involved in joint operations are intruding into the lives of community members in the Bellingham, Washington area, activist Rosalinda Guillen told a local TV station, "It's almost like they're looking for something to do and we're the targets."