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Border debate heating up

State of emergency declarations seen as political moves

SANTA FE -- With just three words, ''state of emergency," border state Governors Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano of Arizona injected urgency into a simmering national debate over illegal immigration.

First Richardson, then Napolitano, declared a state of emergency this month in portions of their states along the border with Mexico. In doing so, they freed state money for local governments and law enforcement to cope with what they describe as increasing border crime and problems related to illegal immigration.

Politically and symbolically, the Democratic governors may have achieved much more.

''The fact that two governors out of the four on the border have issued emergency declarations should be a wake-up call for the Congress to pursue serious immigration reform," said Richardson, who is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2008.

With Richardson and Napolitano running for reelection next year, their emergency declarations may also help inoculate them from potential campaign attacks for their handling of immigration measures.

Napolitano says the issue isn't partisan, or at least shouldn't be. ''It's a border state issue for Arizona," she said.

But Napolitano has angered Republicans by vetoing antiimmigration legislation, including a proposal that would have allowed state and local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws.

In New Mexico, the state with the largest percentage of Hispanics in the country, immigration hasn't reached the same political boiling point as in neighboring Arizona, where voters approved a measure last year to deny some government benefits to illegal immigrants.

There are hints, however, that it could be divisive in New Mexico. In July, several hundred people rallied against a plan by civilian volunteers to start border patrols. The group is similar to dozens of anti-immigration groups that have popped up nationally, inspired by the Minuteman Project in Arizona.

Richardson has broached controversial immigration issues before. Since taking office in 2003, he has signed legislation to allow illegal immigrants to get a driver's license in New Mexico and for children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state college tuition.

Those actions drew the ire of some Republicans.

''How can he speak out against illegal immigration, yet give illegal immigrants incentives to come to New Mexico?" asked Roxanne Rivera, a spokeswoman for the state GOP. ''He is absolutely disingenuous in his attempt to win votes."

In an interview last week, Richardson defended the new laws, saying they will help reduce the number of uninsured immigrant drivers and expand educational opportunities for children already living in New Mexico.

''New Mexico should be considered the most immigrant-friendly state. I have led the way on dealing with immigrants in New Mexico in a realistic way," Richardson said.

Like Napolitano, he said his decision to issue the emergency declaration wasn't politically motivated. He said he hadn't even intended to issue the order, but a town meeting in Deming changed his mind.

At the meeting, ranchers talked about immigrants and drug smugglers crossing their property -- damaging fences and causing cattle deaths by frightening livestock away from water tanks. The police chief in the tiny border town of Columbus had even been shot at, Richardson said.

''It was spontaneous based on what I saw at the time -- a very violent criminal situation at my border affecting the lives of my constituents," Richardson said of his emergency declaration.

There's been a 15 percent increase in the number of illegal immigrants apprehended by the US Border Patrol so far this year in the El Paso sector, which covers the border area in New Mexico and two western Texas counties. More than 106,000 had been caught by mid-August. There have been 25 deaths, up from 18 last year, according to the Border Patrol.

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