Interior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role

Interior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role
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The Interior Department has doubled the number of law enforcement officers it’s sending to the border, according to new data reviewed by The Hill, putting police who usually patrol national parks and wildlife refuges in the new and unfamiliar role of dealing with a surge in immigration.

Since the pilot program began last May, Interior has increased the number of law enforcement officers assigned to assist U.S. Border Patrol under its surge support operations, from 22 to 47.

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Critics of the Trump administration’s deployment say the Interior officers are untrained to handle immigration issues at the border.

“Quite frankly, they are just being thrown into the mix and there isn’t any training,” said Michael Shalton, president of the U.S. Park Police (USPP) Fraternal Order of Police. “They are just supplementing and being told to do whatever Border Patrol tells them to do.”

USPP officers are ill-equipped for the border assignments because for many of them, urban policing is their primary role, Shalton said. Park police are traditionally tasked with overseeing federal parks and roadways in Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco.

“It’s an officer safety concern. And as far as folks receiving adequate training in a desert environment, officers in the Northeast aren’t really being prepared for that,” he said. “We have voiced concerns, but it has fallen on deaf ears.”

Officers participating in the year-old pilot program now outnumber permanent Interior law enforcement staff assigned to federal lands along the Mexican border, according to agency figures.

The roughly 47 officers sent from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS) and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for three-week temporary posts along the border exceed the 41 full-time staff stationed at the parks and refuges adjacent to Mexico.

While the number of officers detailed to the border is small when compared with the thousands of National Guard troops recently assigned to the area, critics say the absence of officers from their regular posts is a big drain on an already-shrinking staff.

“I have no problem with reporting whatever mission we’re tasked with doing, but we have to have adequate staffing here and we have to be supplemented,” Shalton said.

He said there are about 570 officers in D.C., a decrease of almost 100 from a decade ago.

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“That’s a lot for a small agency,” he added.

Interior’s program, known as the Border Support Surge, was launched last spring by now-former Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior gains new watchdog The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks BLM issues final plan for reduced Utah monument MORE, who said it would be one of several steps the agency would take to "secure the homeland."

The Senate last month confirmed Secretary David Bernhardt as the new agency chief.

First labeled as a pilot program designed to bolster President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE’s border security initiative, the operation is expected to continue detailing Interior’s park police and wildlife refuge enforcement officers to the border.

The agency's budget request for 2020 highlights the border surge as an ongoing priority. Interior asked for $930.3 million in law enforcement funding for such programs starting Oct. 1.

“The Department of the Interior manages hundreds of miles along the U.S. southern border, and our law enforcement officers are vested partners in the administration’s border security efforts,” Interior wrote in its March budget overview. “This budget continues to support a robust law enforcement program.”

The request for border enforcement funding comes as the department overall faces steep budget cuts. Trump’s spending proposal for 2020 calls for slashing Interior's budget by 14 percent.

The Interior Department is already facing a more than $11 billion maintenance backlog that some experts say was compounded by this year’s 35-day partial government shutdown, when the majority of parks remained open to the public.

As part of the surge, Interior law enforcement officers were initially stationed at places like South Texas National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Park in Arizona, according to an internal document obtained by The Hill through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The memorandum dated May 1, 2018, and signed by Scott Cameron, acting Interior assistant secretary, said Border Patrol (BP) chose areas they believe “best address the support mission.”

“The DOI’s commitment to this surge mission will assist BP in preventing illegal entry into the United States, and will protect our federal lands, to include the natural and cultural resources as well as enhance visitor safety and experience,” Cameron wrote.

Interior declined to provide any update on new locations for law enforcement officers along the border.

The agency says it has reason to celebrate the initiative. Interior officers have apprehended 7,183 migrants and seized 1,487 pounds of marijuana on federal land along the border, according to internal data shared with The Hill.

“The 2020 budget helps foster safe and drug-free communities by increasing funding for law enforcement,” the agency wrote in its budget proposal.

Larry Cosme, national executive vice president for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said some Interior officers supported their mission at the border.

"We, the men and women, civil servants, place the needs of our country above ourselves sometimes,” he said. “In this case, homeland defense and security is the need of our country and the men and women stand by to serve, protect and defend. At this time, it is along the southern border.”

But one NPS law enforcement officer who was detailed to the border said the arrest and drug-seizure numbers are little to boast about.

“Fifteen-hundred pounds on DOI land seems like nothing. That doesn’t seem low for now, though, because there is less marijuana on DOI lands than there were two years ago,” the officer told The Hill, pointing to the overall drop in marijuana smuggling at the border.

“This is an inappropriate use of government money. ... The numbers are the same. I was kinda hopeful that when Zinke left this would fade away, and this is very clearly not fading away.”

For comparison, U.S. Border Patrol seized 300,289 pounds of marijuana and arrested 396,579 illegal crossers in fiscal 2018.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Interior, called the department’s border program “a sustained attack on the rule of law.”

“The president’s border policies have gone from a political stunt to a sustained attack on the rule of law. He and his friends in Washington lie to the public and manipulate immigration data to excuse their racist, counterproductive efforts to militarize our border with one of our oldest allies,” Grijalva, whose congressional district borders Mexico, told The Hill in a statement Tuesday.

“Treating law enforcement agents like the president’s personal toys is a hallmark of a banana republic, not a functioning democracy,” he said.

Interior did not respond to a request for comment.

Grijalva on Wednesday will lead House Democrats in grilling Bernhardt, who is attending his first hearing in front of the committee as Interior chief, and the role of agency officers is expected to come up.

“The Interior Department needs to explain immediately why these transfers are a good use of taxpayer money,” Grijalva said. “And if it can’t, this farcical program needs to shut down.”