WASHINGTON — Santa Cruz County, Ariz., Sheriff Tony Estrada is only half-joking when he describes the problem of border-smuggling tunnels that crisscross under the streets of Nogales.
“One of these days, we’re going to be a giant sinkhole,” Estrada said of the town where scores of tunnels have been discovered since 1990.
More than half of the 150 tunnels that have been found along the Southwest border have turned up in Nogales, a town where the geography and the proximity of its sister city in Mexico make tunneling attractive for smugglers. A large storm-drainage tunnel connects the towns, giving smugglers an easy start on tunnels, which have increased in recent years.
“There’s nothing that separates us from Mexico” in some places except fences, Estrada said.
He and other police officials along the border are looking to a new law to help put a dent in the tunneling business.
The Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012, signed into law last week by President Barack Obama, makes it a criminal offense for property owners to build, finance or let others build border tunnels on their property.
“We didn’t have very good criminal liability for those that construct and finance border tunnels,” said Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Phoenix, a co-sponsor of the bill. “This actually gives it more teeth.”
The law “prohibits any person from recklessly permitting others to construct or use an unauthorized tunnel or subterranean passage on the person’s land.”
If nothing else, Estrada hopes the law will make landowners think more carefully about whom they rent to. If a renter never has the utilities turned on at a house, for example, that could be a sign the property is being used for a tunnel, he said.
“There are certain expectations that they (landlords) can’t just rent to anybody,” Estrada said.
While the law would allow a landlord to be charged if he knowingly allowed renters to use his property for tunneling, Estrada said he does not think the law “could be applied across the board.”
“It wouldn’t be fair,” to hold every landlord accountable for the actions of every renter, he said.
Other law enforcement agencies welcomed the law.
“We’re always excited when Congress provides us with new tools,” said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a prepared statement that the law will “give the federal government additional tools to protect America against illegal cross-border smuggling.”
Not everyone sees the law as a cure-all, however.
“That’s not going to stop people from building tunnels,” Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever said of the new law.
Dever said his department already has all the laws it needs, but lacks the resources and “political will” to effectively combat border tunnels.
“You got to catch them and put them in prison,” said Dever, whose county is next to Estrada’s. “And we’re not doing a very good job of that. Another law isn’t going to change that.”
But both Estrada and Quayle said that having the stronger penalties under the new law were better than what police had before.
“Obviously, it’s not going to stop everything,” Quayle said. “But it could go a long way … to helping stop the border tunnels from being built.
“It’s a good step in the right direction,” he said.