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Utah sheriffs say US government needs to ‘do their job’ after visits to southern border

By Carlene Coombs - Daily Herald | May 29, 2024

Ryan Aston, Standard-Examiner

Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon and former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson attend a roundtable discussion on immigration issues at the Weber County Sheriff's Office in Ogden on Friday, May 24, 2024.

Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith recently traveled to the southern United States to get a firsthand look at the conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border as immigration continues to be a fiercely debated issue ahead of this year’s elections.

Smith traveled to the border in Arizona along with Kane County Sheriff Tracy Glover after receiving an invitation from the sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona. The two Utah sheriffs also met U.S. Rep. Celeste Maloy at the border.

The trip happened in late March, and Smith said that, along with immigration being a hot topic this election year, he wanted to see it “with my own eyes.”

Smith said he was first invited by the Cochise County sheriff during a roundtable meeting with the Western States Sheriffs’ Association, adding that the meeting fell the day before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.

“To hear to hear what’s going on on the border, straight from the people working the border, and then the very next night hear a completely different story from our president is a little disheartening,” he said.

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald file photo

Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith speaks during a press conference at his office in Spanish Fork on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.

Smith said issues on the border are “affecting all of us” regardless of Utah’s proximity to the border.

“It’s affecting everywhere in the United States. Utah is no exception and Utah County is no exception,” he said.

While in Arizona, Smith said he never saw any Border Patrol agents and described driving by a Border Patrol outpost in Arizona, saying it was fenced off with patrol cars covered in dust.

“It looked like a ghost town and, you know, the (Cochise County) sheriff and his deputies told us, they’re like, ‘We will be shocked if you see an agent,'” he said.

On the trip, Smith said he learned from local law enforcement in Arizona what to look for regarding the “business end” of any trafficking or cartel operations.

While Smith said Utah, and the nation in general, could use improvement in addressing immigration, he said local law enforcement “works hard” to enforce the law and there is a “false narrative” from some Utah political candidates that officers aren’t doing their job.

Rep. Phil Lyman, who is running for governor against Gov. Spencer Cox, has repeated claims that Utah is a “sanctuary state” as part of criticizing the current governor, according to Utah News Dispatch.

U.S. Senate candidate Trent Staggs shared a post in October of a memo from the Salt Lake City field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, dubbed ICE, making a similar claim.

“If somebody breaks the law and they’re an illegal immigrant, they’re going to be arrested and they’re going to be prosecuted just like anybody else would, but with that, they get the same protections under the Constitution as anybody does,” he said. “That’s our nation.”

Smith said the problem is ICE not communicating with local officials and failing to address the issue. He also accused the agency of trying to “throw local officials under the bus” for its own “failed practices.”

“Do your jobs. That is what the American people are paying you to do,” he said. “So do your job, and they’re (the federal government) failing.”

In looking at what can be done in Utah, Smith spoke in favor of legislation to allow local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law, pointing to a bill passed in Texas that allows local officials to arrest and deport people for immigration violations.

That law is facing legal challenges from the federal government and currently is blocked from enforcement while a lawsuit makes its way through the courts, The Texas Tribune reported.

The U.S. Justice Department also filed a lawsuit against Oklahoma last week after legislation was passed making it a crime to enter the state without legal immigration status, according to the Oklahoma Voice.

“If they’re here illegally, and they’re not breaking any local laws, there’s not a lot we can do,” Smith said. “And so I think we need some help that way. And again, just like Texas, if the federal government is not going to step up and do their job, then somebody’s got to do it.”

Smith said he also supported legislation passed this year by Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, which requires federal agencies like ICE to notify the local sheriff’s office and state attorney general if they plan to “release” undocumented immigrants in the state.

Shared concerns

Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon and Utah Rep. Ryan Wilcox made a separate trip of their own to Cochise County to better understand the situation at the southern border. On Friday, they joined Cache County Sheriff Chad Jensen and Utah Rep. Jeff Burton at the Weber County Sheriff’s Office in Ogden for a roundtable discussion on immigration issues, moderated by U.S. Senate candidate and former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson.

Several other sheriffs — including Smith — participated virtually, alongside Utah Sen. Ann Millner and others. Participants echoed critiques of ICE and the federal government’s border enforcement strategy in general.

“We are a nation of laws, and we have laws in place that are not being followed,” Arbon said. “Policies have changed that have disrupted the process at the border, which now, since the feds are failing to do their job, it has become a part of our responsibility to these other states and counties to pick up that slack. We shouldn’t have to.”

Arbon said officials in Arizona spoke of two types of people who cross the border.

“There’s the asylum seekers — or the give-ups — that are generally here for a good life. They want a better lifestyle. They want to be successful,” Arbon said. “The other ones are termed as the ones that don’t want to be caught, and those are the ones that are not necessarily going through the ports. They’re the ones trying to sneak and cut through the border to get in.

“This is where a lot of drugs are coming in. This is where a lot of human trafficking is coming through. These are criminals from other countries that don’t want to be caught or identified. Those are the ones that I am most concerned with, and they are coming over the border by the thousands.”

Wilcox added that Mexican cartels are exploiting asylum seekers and funneling them en masse toward agents at the border in order to draw their attention away from other activity.

“We were told over and over again that the cartel entirely controls who crosses the border. And we watched them with our own eyes,” Wilcox said. “Because they control it, they have flooded the agents where they can see them with the asylum seekers. They pull them off, and that allows them to push over the folks who we really don’t want in the country.”

Arbon noted that an average of 1,100 people daily were moving through Tucson’s asylum processing center as of a few weeks ago, citing information he said came from U.S. Border Patrol officials. He said those asylum seekers are only being held for a maximum of 72 hours, after which they’re being released to the public.

Meanwhile, Tucson International Airport reportedly is seeing 500 immigrants or asylum seekers daily — a number Arbon says he was able to verify — all of whom are on their way to different cities around the U.S.

“The problem is we don’t know who they are. … To me, and in my experience, we’re not doing the right thing to identify and resolve some of these concerns,” Arbon said. “Many of the residents here in Weber County, we welcome immigrants. But they need to do it the right way, and it’s got to be done right.”

Participants also claimed a correlation between the situation at the border and the increased incidence of fentanyl drug busts around the state. Washington County Sheriff Nate Brooksby said that in previous years, his department may have found a few hundred fentanyl pills in a given year. In 2023, though, he says some 167,000 pills were recovered.

For his part, Wilson spoke out against the notion that Utah is a sanctuary state and conveyed his belief that the allowed influx of immigrants to the U.S. is politically motivated.

“Here’s the sad part — and no one’s saying this — but I will say it. I believe that this is being done for political purposes,” Wilson said. “These illegal immigrants are going to be counted in the next census that will determine congressional apportionment. And we have a lot of cities in this country and states where they want these illegal immigrants to be able to vote. These are not things that are acceptable.”

Wilson called on the Biden administration to “enforce the laws the way they were three years ago” and also advocated for a national voter ID requirement.

Standard-Examiner reporter Ryan Aston contributed to this report.


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