Homeland Security effort to work with tribes on border security falters

A Homeland Security Department program that works with tribal leaders to thwart illegal immigration on Indian reservations is suffering from “coordination challenges,” the Government Accountability Office reports.

Tribal leaders aren’t always notified of federal activity on their lands, and federal agents have had trouble navigating some tribal rules and decisions, the investigative arm of Congress warns in a new report.

DHS has created an office to work with the reservation governments, but investigators said greater clarity is needed for issues such as law enforcement centers on tribal lands. “Written government-to-government agreements could assist Border Patrol and tribal officials with enhancing their coordination, consistent with practices for sustaining effective coordination,” the report said.

Eighty-six miles of the U.S. border with Canada and 68 miles of the border with Mexico intersect with 13 different Indian reservations, and DHS started the program to fight drug, weapons and human trafficking that were using reservations as a safe haven.

“Individuals seeking to enter the United States illegally may attempt to avoid screening procedures at ports of entry by crossing the border in areas between these ports, including Indian reservations, many of which have been vulnerable to illicit cross-border threat activity,” the GAO said. 

The unique status of tribes under U.S. law means federal agencies must create government-to-government partnerships. “The federal government recognizes Indian tribes as distinct, independent political communities with inherent powers of self-government that include enacting substantive law over internal matters and enforcing that law in their own forums,” GAO noted.

Border Patrol and some tribal law enforcement agents have been conducting joint patrols and working out of the same facilities to better coordinate their efforts.  Investigators interviewed tribal officials from many different reservations, and found that while some have a good relationship with the federal government, others are more leery. 

“Tribal officials cautioned that while the tribe has a good relationship with the Border Patrol, the majority of tribal community members do not want any Border Patrol presence on the reservation and that the tribal community is very mistrusting of nontribal entities, including law enforcement agencies,” investigators said about one reservation they visited.

But better coordination is needed, investigators said, noting several examples where Border Patrol agents and tribal law enforcement were tracking the same individual, unaware of each other’s involvement.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol agents noted the common practice of soliciting feedback and opinions from all tribe members can sometimes make it difficult to take swift action on security proposals, especially when the agency “has deadlines it must meet to receive funding for projects.”

Cooperation is needed if America’s borders are to be secure, investigators said.

“The nature and complexity of Indian reservations on or near the border, along with the vulnerabilities and threats they face, highlight the importance of DHS and tribes working together to enhance border security,” the GAO said.

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