House passes Ciscomani bill to punish drivers who flee BP, cops near border

Smugglers who lead Border Patrol agents or aiding police officers on high-speed pursuits within 100 miles of the U.S. border could face life sentences if someone is killed during a chase.

A bill to create a new federal crime sponsored by U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-CD6) passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday with bipartisan support, 271-154.

Among Arizona’s congressional delegation, only Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva (CD3) voted against the bill. The bill earned support from Republican Reps. Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar, Eli Crane, David Schweikert and Debbie Lesko alongside Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton.

“For far too long, cartels and smugglers have not faced serious enough consequences when they blatantly endanger our communities,” Ciscomani said. “This bill signals to bad actors that we will pursue any action that threatens American lives to the fullest extent of our law.”

Grijalva called the bill a “cynical” political ploy in an election year.

The measure has not been taken up by the Senate, where it has just two co-sponsors, GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas.

Pursuit penalties

Under the legislation, anyone who flees from U.S. Border Patrol agents within 100 miles of the border—or a federal, state, or
local law enforcement officer actively aiding the pursuit—could face federal charges and up to two years in prison. If anyone were injured in the pursuit, the driver would face a minimum of five years and a maximum of 20 years. If anyone were killed, the driver would face a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life behind bars.

Drivers from foreign countries would also face deportation and be permanently banned from returning to the United States.

Under current law, suspects in high-speed pursuits face often face charges brought by county prosecutors under state law, rather than federal cases.

“It’s common sense that this should be a federal crime,” Ciscomani said on the House floor during a discussion of HR 5585. “Current law does not make this a crime in and of itself. It leaves the burden of prosecuting these individuals for local communities, as if they haven’t already paid the price of this administration’s failures on this issue.”

Ciscomani said high-speed chases have been a problem in his district.

“I consistently hear about the detrimental impacts of high-speed chases in Southern Arizona, Southeastern Arizona to be more specific, and in Cochise County, which is in my district,” Ciscomani said. “This criminal activity is not just reserved to drug cartels and the smugglers themselves. Cartels now recruit Americans to drive down to the border and transport migrants north. We must change the calculus for those who endanger all of us when failing to yield to law enforcement.”

Dannels during a press conference in October 2023 announcing ‘Operation Safe Streets II’ in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

Last October, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said an increasing number of high-speed pursuits in the largely rural county “reached a breaking point.”

“There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not dealing with pursuits,” Dannels told reporters during a press conference at the county’s new border operation center, tucked into series of commercial buildings in Sierra Vista.

Along with several members of Arizona Sheriff’s Association and Jeffery Glover, the head of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Dannels sharply criticized the Biden administration and said deputies from several other sheriff’s departments in the state would send officers to patrol Cochise County as part of “Operation Safe Streets II.”

Chris Hiser, the chief of the Sierra Vista Police Department, said over previous last two years, his department has dealt with “an increase in vehicle pursuits directly related to human traffickers and drug smugglers, and this has been a direct threat to the safety and security of our community.”

Cochise County officials said 13 people died in crashes involving human smugglers. Organizers for human smuggling efforts have pushed hard in recent years to move people through Cochise County, hiring drivers—largely U.S. citizens from the Phoenix-area— to drive vehicles carrying people.

Cochise County officials said some drivers have been told “to evade law enforcement at any cost.” 

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors have pushed hard to prosecute human smugglers, including smuggling coordinators who use social media to hire drivers. In August, federal prosecutors announced charges against 22 people who posted to Snapchat that anyone trying to find a way to make major money should contact them to drive, or recruit someone in their stead to drive.

One post promised $3,000 to $20,000 for a “few hours of driving,” or recruiting someone who can drive.

Road wrecks, COVID cause most BP agent deaths

Ciscomani said he named the bill for Border Patrol Agent Raul Gonzales, “who was killed in 2022 while pursuing illegal immigrants in Texas. His death underscored the tragic truth that our agents risk their lives every day to protect our country.”

Gonzales was killed in ATV crash while pursuing people in the desert near Mission, Texas, in December 2022. That same year, Border Patrol Agent Daniel Humberto Salazar was killed when he overturned his Jeep Wrangler in the desert near Campos, Calif.

In November 2023, Border Patrol Agent Freddy Ortiz was killed when he struck a utility pole while responding to a report of migrants just west of Douglas, Ariz.

58 Border Patrol agents have died in the line of duty over the last 20 years. Of those, nearly 40 percent were killed in car or vehicle accidents, according to analysis of deaths by the Cato Institute. This includes agents who were killed by equipment failures, mistakes, a fatal collision involving a drunk driver, and one incident when two agents collided on their motorcycles, killing one.

Of the agents who died in the last two decades, 28 percent died from COVID-19, according to the Cato Institute.

The Agent Raul Gonzales Officer Safety Act is supported by multiple law enforcement agencies, including the National Border Patrol Council—the union that represents many Border Patrol agents—as well as Heritage Action, National Sheriffs’ Association, Western States Sheriffs’ Association, and the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police. The bill was also supported by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, Yuma County Sheriff’s Office, Cochise County Attorney’s Office, as well as the Bisbee Police Department, Benson Police Department, and Sierra Vista Police Department. 

While police agencies throughout the U.S. have their own policies on pursuing vehicles carrying drugs or people smuggled across the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials revised the agency’s own directive regarding high-speed pursuits in January 2023.

The new policy acknowledged the danger inherent in high-speed pursuits but did not ban them.

“Instead, the policy entrusts agents, officers, and their supervisors with the ability to conduct pursuits based on the government interest (severity of the crime and the level of threat posed by the subject) and foreseeable risk in their analysis, other available means to apprehend suspects, and the law enforcement need for pursuits,” the agency said.

The ACLU of Texas noted in a report last year that 107 people died as a result of high-speed chases between January 2010 and Nov. 8, 2022, calling it part of “the disturbing trend of deadly Border Patrol vehicle pursuits.” 

“It’s common sense that this should be a federal crime,” Ciscomani said on the House floor. “Far too many lives have been jeopardized and tragically even taken at the hands of bad actors who engage in high speed pursuits. If you evade CBP or local law enforcement, you are clearly not a good actor.”

Grijalva during Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs’ ‘state of the state’ address in Tucson on Jan. 23, 2024.

Grijalva told Congress the bill is “redundant” and “it does nothing to move us in a direction to deal with the real issues and the real needs that we have on the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Grijalva’s district includes much of Southern Arizona and stretches
along Cochise County to include the border towns of Naco and Douglas.

Grijalva argued the bill is part of a larger “cynical” attempt to use the issues on the border to further Republicans during an election year. “We will see through this ruse—if you want to deal with immigration, if you want to begin to solve this crisis, you have to do it as a country, not as a narrow ideological position on the part of one person running for president—Trump.”