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Napolitano tells sheriffs group that border security is a priority

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WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the government’s decision to funnel most of a federal border-security grant program to the southern border, telling a national sheriffs group Thursday that the government is “very serious” about stopping illegal traffic.

“We put it (funding) where we adjudicated that we needed it the most, and we’re all about setting priorities,” Napolitano said of the nearly $200 million spent since fiscal 2005 under Operation Stonegarden.

Napolitano, speaking to a National Sheriffs Association conference in Washington, said the government has made “amazing progress” in driving down illegal immigration. People crossing the Southwest border illegally fell 73 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to a report last summer by the Center for American Progress.

But several Arizona sheriffs who were in Washington for the conference said there are still improvements to be made in the federal programs.

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever said Operation Stonegarden was a great idea to begin with, but it now feels as if the federal program is trying to turn local officials into “de facto Border Patrol agents.”

“As a sheriff, I’m not going to work for the federal government,” Dever said. “We’re not going to be wards to their stewardship in any way, shape or form.”

Greenlee County Sheriff Steve Tucker said his department was not able to use as much of the money as it would have liked, because of all the federal strings that come with it.

“We received Stonegarden money, but I have to tell you that it’s so complicated in how we use it and how we deploy our personnel with it that it’s pretty difficult for us to use it,” he said.

Operation Stonegarden, which is administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is intended to help local police departments with border security costs and to increase cooperation between state and federal agencies at the border.

Napolitano also touted the Secure Communities program, which she said has led to the deportation of large numbers of convicted criminals who were found to be in the country illegally. She reiterated that deporting such criminals is an administration priority.

Secure Communities, which began in 2008, requires that anyone booked in a local jail have their fingerprints run through federal databases to determine the suspect’s immigration status.

Some counties have criticized the program and resisted its implementation, but Napolitano said her department is working with those counties and continuing to improve the program.

All counties on the Southwest border have implemented Secure Communities, she said.

“It’s a huge undertaking, as you might well imagine,” Napolitano said of Secure Communities. “But it’s the right thing to do if what we want to accomplish is to make sure that, if we can’t remove everybody from the country, we can at least remove those who’ve committed crimes and endangered the public safety.”

Because of the drop in illegal immigration, border agents are better able to focus on seizing drugs and stopping border crime, she said.

“It’s going to keep getting better,” Napolitano told the sheriffs.

But Dever said that although progress had been made along the border, it’s still not under control and more needs to be done.

“They’ve been prioritizing criminal aliens … which is a good thing, but you can’t do that to exclusion,” Dever said. “We’re a long way from solving the problem.”