Hundreds of Border Patrol agents have pitched in to help police as wildfires sweep through San Diego County, knocking on doors and helping redirect traffic. But some immigrants’ advocates say their involvement deterred illegal immigrants from seeking shelter from the wildfires.
Though the Border Patrol took up new responsibilities as the fires raged, the agency didn’t stop enforcing immigration law.
“We’re always in our enforcement role, just like any law enforcement officer,” said Matt Johnson, spokesman for the San Diego Sector Border Patrol. “Any crime we see in front of us, we’re going to arrest for.”
That sends a mixed message to illegal immigrants, said Pedro Rios, director of the San Diego American Friends Service Committee. Rios said the Border Patrol’s dual role during the fires — and its potential to repel illegal immigrants seeking help — was epitomized by a well-publicized arrest outside the county’s biggest relief center.
When six people were caught Wednesday allegedly stealing supplies from Qualcomm Stadium for resale, Border Patrol agents assisting with the relief effort quickly switched into enforcement mode, and took the suspects into custody after being called by San Diego Police. The six were suspected to be illegal immigrants.
“The police erred in calling for Border Patrol,” Rios said. “They should have booked them.” Border Patrol could have taken the case later, he said.
Border Patrol has also taken an active role in San Ysidro, where a voluntary evacuation order is in effect, by knocking on doors to alert residents of the order. Johnson was stunned that anyone would question the Border Patrol’s involvement during the crisis.
“We’re dedicating our resources to helping out,” he said. “We’re out here to help people, and we’re supposed to not help people because some people don’t feel comfortable around us? San Diego agencies have requested our help.”
Since Sunday, the Border Patrol has also aided more than 200 people caught in the wildfires while illegally crossing the border, many of whom surrendered to Border Control after being caught off guard by the fires.
The presence of Border Patrol agents in the rescue efforts isn’t the only deterrent for illegal immigrants in danger from the fires, Rios said. Some shelters have asked for identification proving the addresses of evacuees. Not every shelter has done so — Casa Familiar in San Ysidro won’t check IDs, for example — and enforcement appears to be spotty even at shelters that are checking IDs.