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Pima Supervisors wait to reconsider Stonegarden border funds

The continued acceptance of nearly $1.4 million in federal grant money under a program known as Operation Stonegarden remains in limbo after the Pima County Supervisors voted Tuesday to delay their decision until September, allowing a citizen commission to review data from police agencies. 

The decision came after more than two hours of public comment, in which more nearly 20 people asked the supervisors to reject the grant money and push the increasingly controversial U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of Pima County's jail. 

In February, the supervisors agreed to accept the money after a contentious meeting when Supervisor Ramón Valadez switched his vote after rejecting the grant money two weeks earlier. As part of Valadez's vote, he added five conditions to the grant, including the creation of a citizens board formed by two appointees per supervisor, tasked with reviewing data and policy on a quarterly basis. 

This week, the supervisors voted 3-2 along party lines to delay funding until September, with Valadez, along with Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Richard Elias, endorsing the delay.

The commission, however, has struggled with its tasks over the last few months, in part because Supervisor Ally Miller has not appointed two members to the commission, and Supervisor Steve Christy has only appointed one member, leaving three seats vacant. 

"I feel comfortable that not only have we met the five conditions, but in some places we've actually exceeded those conditions," said Sheriff Mark Napier. 

Napier argued that Stonegarden allows the department to put 500 deputies in places that the agency cannot typically get to, and are used heavily by drug and human traffickers, such as the Ajo corridor where State Route 85 runs north to Interstate 8. 

"There are 4,000 Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector, and I have about 500 badge and gun people — deputies — to patrol 9,200 square miles," Napier said. "The federal money overtime lets me deploy those resources to places that I typically cannot get to, but we know are heavily used by drug and human traffickers." 

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Before the supervisors meeting began, around a dozen people spoke out against Stonegarden in the lobby, including Cesar Aguirre, who works at the Casa Maria soup kitchen and serves on the citizen's committee, who said that he was often harassed by different law enforcement agencies who work "in collaboration with Border Patrol." 

"As a county, as a city, as a state, we need to be fighting for our local government to fight for us, because this is ridiculous," he said. "I'm shaking out of anger and fear, because I can't continue to see families be separated. Think about it if this was your family, your kids, your nephews, your nieces, your grandchildren, would you still stand for it?" 

Zaira Livier, the director of the People’s Defense Initiative, spoke about the death of an 18-year-old boy, who had been deported after he was picked up on a "weak charge" and handed over to ICE after he spent time in Pima County's jail. "Two weeks later, his body was returned back — well his family had to pick up the body of this 18-year-old kid — who has been executed and shot in the head." 

"I don't know the same of this boy, but I know his story, because my brother too, was killed in the same fashion," she said. She said that the mortuary director who dealt with her brother's body told her, "'I hate to say this, but this happens all the time, and you're one of the lucky ones.'" 

Livier said the mortuary director told her that in the cooler next to her brother was the 18-year-old boy, who had also been murdered in Mexico. "We have boys, men and women, sitting in the South Side of Tucson, kept in coolers, because they've been deported and they've died. As we speak." 

"Don't make this a matter this is complicated, it is very straight-forward, these policies kill our families, they killed mine, and they killed that poor boy, who sat in that mortuary with my brother with the same wound," she said. 

Livier later told the supervisors the same story during public comment. 

Isabel Garcia, a former public defender, told the board to refuse the grant to keep Border Patrol and ICE from "permeating" every form of government and allowing local police to act as a "force multiplier" for immigration officials, she said, added that the community wanted ICE "out of the jail." "And, you too Ramon," Garica said, aiming her last comment at Supervisor Valadez. 

Following the public comment, Christy said that he would vote to accept the grant. 

"I support the sheriff and his decisions, and his operation of the jail and his department," Christy said. 

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Supervisor Richard Elias said that listening to people had been "dramatic." 

"Some of the words that I heard today speak to the importance of this issue, how detrimental it is to our community to have ICE and Stonegarden happening all around us," Elias said. "If people cannot trust law enforcement, that's very dangerous situation to be put us all in," he said. 

Elias noted that the board had not met since February, and during that time "so many bad things have happened" including the "zero tolerance" policy that resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their parents that "crushed the soul of this nation." Elias linked the Trump administration's policy this summer to the Japanese internment during WWII, "but at least, they were kept together as families. We've gone beyond that," Elias said solemnly. "That's really hard to make up," Elias said, adding that it will take time for people to trust federal officials. 

After Supervisor Sharon Bronson seconded Elias motion, Christy asked how long the grant would be available. 

"How long is this grant going to be available for us to decide this, will it be withdrawn at some point? It is just going to vaporize and dissipate?" 

The grant works on a three-year basis, but Elias said he wasn't sure if the grant would be withdrawn. "I would suggest that waiting a month isn't going to hurt anything." 

Christy asked staff and the Sheriff's Department, "so this could just go on and on forever?"

Miller said that she did "some research" and at "some point" the funds would be withdrawn, but she "didn't remember the exact timing." 

Christy pushed the board and the Sheriff's Department to find that out, "How long do we have under this grant is withdrawn?" 

Napier said that "technically" it could go until December, but "federal partners are growing weary of us not accepting these funds" and delaying the grant could threaten future funds, he said. 

He added that the federal government was expanding the grants, and he expected to use the increased money to buy more equipment. "If this is still mired in debate, our ability to move forward for the next year is significantly in jeopardy," Napier said. He also said that the funding does not vaporize, rather the money will be transferred to other agencies. "All the things that people spoke to eloquently about, that they're concerned about, do not dissipate in any way, they're simply transferred to people we have to control over." 

Overall, the federal government plans to spend $85 million on Stonegarden funds in Fiscal Year 2018, one of three programs managed by the Department of Homeland Security at a total cost of more than $1 billion. 

Elias asked people who were opposed to stand up, and more than three dozen people stood up in the room. Miller followed by asking people who support Stonegarden to stand up, and around eight people, including Miller, Napier, and sheriff's deputies stood.  

During the meeting on Tuesday, Napier addressed some of the people who had criticized Stonegarden. 

"I'm here listening to you, that's something you won't have if we defeat Stonegarden because I won't be at the table, I won't be able to help you with the things you care about—the things I care about," he said. 

Napier said that Stonegarden's funding gives him a "seat at the table" in Washington, allowing him to bend the ear of federal officials, including Tucson Sector Chief Rudolfo Karisch. "If I call him, he has to pick up the phone," Napier said. 

Napier also noted that during a meeting in Washington D.C., he met with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and told the Secretary to tell the president to "shut up about illegal immigration."

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"We have to be a strategic partner because it allows our voice to be heard," he said. "As soon as we don't have this anymore, their reason to pick up the phone, their reason to listen to me, goes away because I'm not at the table anymore. And, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu." 

Napier also rejected the idea that the grant's funding was largely used to arrest people for subsequent deportations. "I would not support it, if I thought that. This is my home, despite all the political rhetoric I've lived in this county for 31 years, my family lives here, my granddaughter lives here," he said. 

"This grant is not about enforcing federal immigration law, it's about interdicting transnational criminal organizations," Napier said. "No one can dispute the fact that we're a major trafficking corridor for both human and drug trafficking, so I would be remiss if I did not take federal resources to help me combat those issues." 

Napier noted that his department did not a 287g agreement with ICE, which gives local police officer to authority to arrest and detain people for violating immigration law. "We are not a 287g department and we will never be a 287g department. We will not be warrant service officers, we will not engage in that proactive nature toward federal immigration laws," he said. 

"Until the change in the Washington, D.C., administration, this was a consent item on the agenda that went through year after year without debate," Napier said, noting that his department has received about $16 million through Stonegarden over the past decade, with about $10 million going to overtime expenditures and about $6 million for equipment. Napier said that Stonegarden allows the department to "deploy deputies in areas that are traditionally underserved."  

Napier argued that Stonegarden allows the department to put 500 "badge and gun people" or deputies in places that the agency cannot typically get to, and are used heavily by drug and human traffickers, such as the Ajo corridor where State Route 85 runs north to Interstate 8. 

Napier noted that six months ago the agency did not have a racial profiling policy. "It was a blank piece of paper, it didn't exist," but now the department was developing its own policy thanks to meetings and Napier said he was meeting with the American Civil Liberties Union to continue developing the policy. "We're better when we talk and communicate." 

Napier added that the deployments could help the agency interdict, or "make less attractive" some corridors and stymie the smuggling of opiates and methamphetamines. "We know what we catch, we'll never know what we prevent, but some of that is channeled back through the ports of entry where they are doing more interdictions," he said. 

On Friday, Napier posted on Facebook to ask members of the community to write "polite and professional" letters to the Board of Supervisors and ask them to approve the grant. 

"Currently, they are only hearing from a few dozen activists who dominate the Board meetings. I do not believe they represent either the majority of our citizens or the true best interesting of our county," Napier wrote. 

Last month, the Sheriff's Department released a "snapshot" of people in the jail, showing that out of 1881 people, around 70 were held on ICE detainers, representing about four percent of the total population. Of those people, 69 were charged with a felony.

"Of that four percent, 98 percent are there are felony state charges, so they're very serious charges. They're unlikely to go anywhere any time soon because of the state charges," Napier said. "So the idea that I'm just letting ICE do whatever they want is a false proposition," he said. 

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Among the critiques of Stonegarden were signs that PCSD deputies were establishing a spot at Border Patrol checkpoints. 

 "We have a policy now that prohibits that," Napier said, adding: "It's because I listened to the people here." 

From Jan. 1 to June 30, ICE was notified when 247 people were released the adult detention center managed by the Sheriff's Department. 

Of those, 176 were handed over to ICE, 28 people were handed over to the Arizona Department of Corrections, 5 to other federal agencies, 10 to agencies in Arizona, and 10 more to officials in other states. 

Drug-interdiction grant also in limbo

The decision also left up in the air money for a second program known as the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or HIDTA, which provides funding to "facilitate, support and enhance collaborative drug control efforts" in Arizona. 

The HIDTA grant will give the county about $363,000 to support drug interdictions in the state. 

Among the HIDTA grant's supporters was John Backer, who said he supported Stonegarden and HIDTA because they "break down silos of information." 

"Our enemies use our freedom against us, and it's critical that law enforcement officers collaborate," Backer said. "No one would suggest that people coming across our border are terrorists, but terrorists can come across our border." 

Dawn Mertz, the executive director of Arizona HIDTA, said that the program kept Arizona safer, and added that the overdose rates for Americans has increased dramatically year-to-year outpacing deaths from vehicle accidents. 

This was echoed by Kara Riley, a commander withe Oro Valley Police Department, who said that the coordinated effort "keeps communities safer." 

The board voted along the same lines, 3-2 to hold off their decision on the HIDTA grant. 

"Do you see Border Patrol representatives here listening to people, do you see ICE representatives here? I am your county law enforcement official, I'm elected by the people, and I'm the people's servant unlike the federal government," Napier said. 

"I have no obligation to be here, but I want to hear their concerns," he said. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier during the Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.