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New Mexico County Declares State Of Emergency Over Abandoned Checkpoints


Just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, along remote stretches of highway, there are federal checkpoints. They're a line of defense against northbound drug and human traffickers. But the Border Patrol has abandoned half a dozen checkpoints as agents are reassigned to process the flood of migrants seeking asylum. This has one New Mexico county so alarmed it's declared its own state of emergency. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Otero County, N.M., is a landscape of trackless desert and soaring mountains that lies northeast of El Paso. Normally, if you drive from Las Cruces to Alamogordo on U.S. Highway 70, you have to pull into a federal inspection station. A stern green-suited agent asks if you're a U.S. citizen while another one with a dog sniffs your car for drugs.


BURNETT: Nowadays, traffic roars past orange cones that block the entrance to the checkpoint. Customs and Border Protection has closed down all six checkpoints in the El Paso sector, which covers West Texas and New Mexico. That riles Couy Griffin. He wears a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and owns a nearby barbecue cafe whose trademark is a giant replica of a six-gun.

COUY GRIFFIN: Where we're at right now at this Border Patrol checkpoint that's closed down, it's in place to provide security, and now it's left abandoned.

BURNETT: Griffin is chairman of the Otero County Board of Commissioners. He was the force behind the surprise move last week when the county declared a state of emergency over the shuttered checkpoint.

GRIFFIN: And through this declaration, this emergency, what I'm really hoping comes out of it is that our governor will recommission the National Guard, which she pulled off of the border earlier this year.

BURNETT: Earlier this year, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham withdrew 118 National Guard troops from New Mexico's southern boundary in opposition to President Trump's border policies. Since then, the El Paso sector has been overwhelmed by illegal crossers. They're apprehending 600 migrants a day, 1,600% increase over the same time period last year. So the Otero commissioners, all Trump supporters, want the Democratic governor to redeploy National Guard to their checkpoints to help out the overtaxed Border Patrol. But Governor Lujan Grisham says in a phone interview from Santa Fe, that's a job for the Feds, not the state.

MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: They haven't given me any information about a state emergency or a county emergency, except that they're mad that the checkpoint is closed. The National Guard cannot do immigration work, so they can't man that checkpoint. They can't make arrests. It doesn't make any sense.

BURNETT: There's no dispute the Border Patrol's 71 traffic checkpoints all along the Southwest border sees lots of dope. Since October 1, checkpoint agents have discovered 7 tons of marijuana and a ton and a half of meth inside vehicles. Otero County Sheriff David Black is convinced the loss of the checkpoint on U.S. 54, south of Alamogordo, has been a boon to smugglers.

DAVID BLACK: What we're seeing here now is we're seeing a huge influx in drugs. I mean, the highway is wide open. There's no checkpoints, nothing.

BURNETT: Before the checkpoint was closed, Black was sending his investigators down there two to three times a week to make drug cases. He says informants are now telling him that Mexican traffickers know if they can get their product across the river, they have a free ride north.

BLACK: This is my hometown. I'm born and raised right here in Otero County. I got grandkids in the schools. And this stuff is just piling into our community right now.

BURNETT: Otero County officials are not the only ones complaining. CBP has reassigned 750 agents from ports of entry to help process the wave of asylum applicants. U.S. and Mexican business interests up and down the border are griping that because of understaffed ports, the wait for commercial traffic is now counted in hours, not minutes. In a statement, CBP says the checkpoint closures are a temporary measure. No date was given for their reopening. John Burnett, NPR News, Alamogordo, N.M. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.