'Dirty money': Key border communities are rejecting $2.5 million in federal money over Trump's wall and extreme immigration policies

  • Since the Trump administration took office in 2017, at least three counties, three cities, and one Indigenous Nation spanning more than 150 miles of international border have rejected a federal program designed to boost border security.
  • "We want to reduce risk of deportation and profiling, including harassment, that comes with collaborating with federal law enforcement," a city councilor in Las Cruces, New Mexico, told Insider.
  • "It seemed like dirty money," Joe Nole, the sheriff of Jefferson County, Washington, told Insider. "It felt like we were being paid money to assist Border Patrol," he added later.
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Fed up with the Trump administration's harsh immigration policies, cities and counties across the US have been flexing their own political powers.

The administration's heavy-handed tactics rely on partnerships with a mosaic of local law enforcement agencies, but a growing number of them have rejected federal funding in order to limit collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security since President Donald Trump took office.

Since 2017, at least three counties, three cities, and one Indigenous Nation, totalling more than 150 miles of international border, voted to stop participating in the DHS grant program Operation Stonegarden. Over the summer, local governments in Rockland, Maine, and Jefferson County, New York, decided to end their Stonegarden programs.

"It seemed like dirty money," Joe Nole, the sheriff of Jefferson County, Washington, told Insider. "It felt like we were being paid money to assist Border Patrol," he added later.

Stonegarden was designed to increase law enforcement collaboration, including data-sharing, but growing distrust and resentment of the Trump administration has resulted in the opposite. These strategically important border communities are now forgoing more than $2.5 million in federal funding, and reassessing the need for such a program in the first place.

The politicians interviewed described the program's growing unpopularity among their constituents, a lack of flexibility from DHS regarding how the funds are allotted, and a lack of oversight in the program's administration.

An internal audit by the Office for the Inspector General in 2017 concluded that the Department of Homeland Security needed to monitor the grant's reimbursements more closely; FEMA and CBP had not been collecting "reliable program data or developed measures to demonstrate program performance" as far back as fiscal year 2008.

The lack of accountability has been particularly problematic because the program places local law enforcement officers in the position of enforcing federal immigration law. Under the pretense of border security, officers on Stonegarden shifts organized what the ACLU called an "immigration raid" in Chaparral, New Mexico, in 2007, and arrested the passenger of a car during a traffic stop in Aransas County, Texas, in 2018.

Yet the recent wave of rejections is a direct response to federal immigration law policy under Trump, whose administration separated an estimated 4,000 children from their parents and hasn't been able to locate the parents of 545 of them.

The political aspect of the decision is most visible when the votes defy the communities' top law enforcement officials who have argued, in border communities such as Pima County, Arizona, and Jefferson County, New York, that leaving the grant program will hurt public safety.

It started with an 'outcry'

The highest profile rebuke of Operation Stonegarden came from Pima County in February.

It's one of the busiest regions in the borderlands, and the Tucson Sector Border Patrol regularly sees the highest rates of apprehensions for illegal immigration, behind the Rio Grande Valley sector. Last year the Pima County Sheriff's Department received more than $1 million from the program.

The county has been participating in Operation Stonegarden for the past 12 years, yet in recent years the vote to approve the funding has been narrowly decided. This year, Democratic Supervisor Sharon Bronson, who represents the largest geographic district in Pima County, which includes roughly 125 miles of border with Mexico, cast the deciding vote.

Bronson had pushed DHS for greater flexibility on financial reimbursement from the program, requesting that the funds be applied toward non-overtime wages for the officers, and that an additional $200,000 be allotted under the grant program for humanitarian aid.

The grant program provides reimbursement for overtime hours, gas, and equipment resulting from border patrols and enforcing federal immigration law. Bronson's request, therefore, was a challenge to consider the problems posed by federal immigration policy enforcement more broadly, such as supporting the underfunded migrant shelters in the Tucson area.

DHS categorically denied this request.

"Taking care of the border is a federal responsibility; we need full reimbursement," Bronson told Insider.

Operation Stonegarden was formally expanded in 2006 from a series of pilot programs designed to support closer coordination between state and federal law enforcement agencies. It was a response to "an outcry from state, local and tribal law enforcement officials on the southwest border who were forced to utilize existing local funding to address a federal border problem," according to Ned Norris Jr., chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Yet when Janet Napolitano became DHS secretary in 2009 under then-President Barack Obama, she doubled Stonegarden's budget, modified eligibility requirements, and restructured the program to necessitate collaboration with local Border Patrol sector offices. Whereas initially the program was designed to help "offset some … locally incurred costs," as Norris described, the money now came with strings attached.

"Since then, the Border Patrol has exerted strict participation requirements for local agencies that are designed by the Border Patrol to support the Border Patrol's mission and deployment strategy," Norris said.

The last straw

Although public records indicate hundreds of agencies have not renewed Stonegarden contracts over the years, including at least a dozen tribal governments, the first confirmed rejection of Stonegarden funding was in 2018.

The Tohono O'odham Nation decided that it was "neither operationally feasible nor fiscally responsible for [the Tohono O'odham Police Department] to continue its participation in Operation Stonegarden as the program is currently administered by the Border Patrol," Norris told Insider.

For the Tohono O'odham Nation — which includes 62 miles of the US-Mexico border — the decision hinged on the mandated deference to Border Patrol's operations. Not only did Border Patrol independently control the schedule and number of the Nation's police officers deployed, set two weeks in advance, the police department was not able to redirect its officers working on Stonegarden shifts to border-related issues when they occurred, and instead needed to notify Border Patrol first even though the Nation has jurisdiction on its own land. These calls therefore needed to be handled by officers on non-Stonegarden shifts.

The last straw was the fact that the final two reimbursement requests by the Nation were only partially filled. According to Norris, the police department was only reimbursed for a fraction of its overtime costs, and had to personally cover the majority of the costs from participating in Operation Stonegarden. The state of Arizona would not make the full reimbursement without securing approval from Border Patrol who, according to Norris, did not respond to repeated requests.

The Tohono O'odham Nation has been publicly engaged in a multi-year dispute with the Trump administration over the construction of the border wall over their sovereign lands, yet did not respond to questions about whether the decision to reject Stonegarden funds was directly tied to the Trump administration.

'DHS has become a lot more aggressive and less interested in human rights'

The late Richard Elías, supervisor in Pima County, voted down the Stonegarden funding for two consecutive years. His decision was explicitly based on the change in DHS policy under the Trump administration.

"DHS has become a lot more aggressive and less interested in human rights," Elías said.

The county sheriff, Marc Napier, was in favor of the program, and told Insider that it supported essential law enforcement activities. 

"Our challenges remain the same," Napier said. "This will definitely have an impact on public safety. Previously we had a million dollars of overtime to put deputies into areas that are ripe for drug smuggling and human trafficking."

Napier advocated for accepting the federal funding as preferable to using Pima County taxpayer funds, yet the city of Las Cruces set an example last summer when they decided to replace the Stonegarden grant with $48,000 from the city budget.

This way there is no longer any collaboration with federal law enforcement, says City Councilor Gabriel Vasquez. Las Cruces has invested in its own finger-printing technology, for example, so that it does not have to share information with Border Patrol.

"We want to reduce risk of deportation and profiling, including harassment, that comes with collaborating with federal law enforcement," Vasquez said."There were a number of issues [with the program], but now that it's under the Trump administration, I trust the program even less," he added later.

'The tenor and feel of the town changed dramatically'

Communities along the northern border have also voiced their skepticism of the program. Whether to accept these grants was a decisive issue in the Jefferson County, Washington, sheriff election last year. Sheriff Joe Nole, who beat out the incumbent, ran on a platform of ending the program.

Members of the community were upset that Border Patrol was boarding buses to check IDs and shutting down main roads to create checkpoints. Officers on Stonegarden shifts were supposed to collaborate with Border Patrol by reporting undocumented immigrants, Nole told Insider.

"I didn't like that we were accepting money for things the community wasn't in favor of," Nole said.

Rockland, Maine, faced the decision of whether or not to accept the Stonegarden funds this summer after it was proposed by the police chief, who suggested participation doesn't require immigration enforcement. The proposal nonetheless sparked strong opposition.

One councilor worried participation would "irreparably" damage the city's reputation, while Councilor Benjamin Dorr said "$7,000 is a meager price tag to attach to possibly being put in a compromising situation in the future," according to the meeting's minutes.

During the meeting, former state representative and Rockland councilor Elizabeth Dickerson said the neighboring town of Limestone saw unexpected consequences after accepting Stonegarden funds.

She urged the council to consider the "erosion of local control" that comes with participating in the program. "Border Patrol stepped in and over my office," Dickerson told the council, according to the Penobscot Bay Pilot.

"The tenor and feel of the town changed dramatically afterward," she said. "We had Border Patrol officers in those white and green pickup trucks on either end of town, constantly. They became a presence."

After hearing opinions and arguments from the community, the council voted. The motion to participate in Stonegarden did not pass.

Becca Shaw Glaser, a Rockland citizen, spoke out during the public forum.

"We have an opportunity to join with, and encourage, other municipalities in proudly proclaiming that we are not interested in cooperating with, coordinating with, collaborating with, nor having a joint mission with a government agency that is carrying out some of the worst human rights abuses on the planet," she said.

"Imagine if every municipality in Maine refused this money, refused this joint mission with CBP, took a principled stance against the atrocious actions of this agency. Rockland can lead the way."

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