Image: Jan Brewer
Ross D. Franklin  /  AP
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, seen here at a ceremony commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the start of the Korean War on Friday, on April signed a controversial new state immigration enforcement law.
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updated 6/26/2010 3:23:12 PM ET 2010-06-26T19:23:12

Gov. Jan Brewer said Friday that most illegal immigrants entering Arizona are being used to transport drugs across the border, an assertion that critics slammed as exaggerated and racist.

Brewer said the motivation of "a lot" of the illegal immigrants is to enter the United States to look for work, but that drug rings press them into duty as drug "mules."

"I believe today, under the circumstances that we're facing, that the majority of the illegal trespassers that are coming into the state of Arizona are under the direction and control of organized drug cartels and they are bringing drugs in," Brewer said.

"There's strong information to us that they come as illegal people wanting to come to work. Then they are accosted and they become subjects of the drug cartel," she said.

Brewer's office later issued a statement in response to media reports of her comments. It said most human smuggling into Arizona is under the direction of drug cartels, which "are by definition smuggling drugs."

"Unless Gov. Brewer can provide hard data to substantiate her claim that most undocumented people crossing into Arizona are 'drug mules,' she must retract such an outrageous statement," said Oscar Martinez, a University of Arizona history professor whose teaching and research focuses on border issues. "If she has no data and is just mouthing off for political reasons, as I believe she is doing, then she must apologize to the people of Arizona for lying to them so blatantly."

'Needy, humble people'
Sen. Jesus Ramon Valdes, a member of the Mexican Senate's northern border affairs commission, called Brewer's comments racist and irresponsible.

"Traditionally, migrants have always been needy, humble people who in good faith go looking for a way to better the lives of their families," Ramon Valdes said.

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A Border Patrol spokesman said illegal immigrants do sometimes carry drugs across the border, but he said he couldn't provide numbers because smugglers are turned over to prosecutors.

"I wouldn't say that every person that is apprehended is being used as a mule," spokesman Mario Escalante said from Tucson. "The smuggling organizations, in their attempts to be lucrative and to make more money, they'll try pretty much whatever they need."

T.J. Bonner, president of the union that represents border agents, said some illegal border-crossers carry drugs but most don't. People with drugs face much stiffer penalties for entering the U.S. illegally, and very few immigrants looking for work want to risk the consequences, Bonner said.

"The majority of people continue to come across in search of work, not to smuggle drugs," he said. "Most of the drug smuggling is done by people who intend to do that. That's their livelihood."

A spokesman for a human rights group said Brewer's comments were "an oversimplification of reality."

"We have some stories of people being forced to carry drugs," said Jaime Farrant, policy director for Tucson-based Border Action Network. "We disagree with the assessment that people are crossing (to carry drugs). We have no evidence that's the truth. We think most people come in search of jobs or to reunite with their families."

Controversial law
Brewer spoke Friday when asked about comments she made in a recent election debate among Republican candidates for governor.

She said during the June 15 debate that she believed most illegal immigrants were not entering the United States for work. She then associated illegal immigrants with drug smuggling, drop houses, extortion and other criminal activity.

Brewer on April 23 signed a controversial new state immigration enforcement law that is scheduled toe effect July 29, although five legal challenges already are pending in federal court, and the U.S. Justice Department may file its own challenge.

The Arizona law requires police officers enforcing another law to question a person's immigration status if there's a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the country illegally.

Francisco Loureiro, who has run a migrant shelter for more than 20 years in Nogales, Sonora, across the border from the Arizona town of the same name, said Brewer's comments are aimed at turning the people of Arizona against migrants and strengthen support for the state's new law.

"That governor is racist and she has to look for a way to harm the image of migrants before American society and mainly before the people of Arizona," Loureiro said.

Roberto Suro, a University of Southern California journalism professor who founded a research center on Hispanics, said he was skeptical of Brewer's assertion, partly because federal authorities would be trumpeting many more drug seizures than they do. "The Border Patrol is not secretive about saying when they apprehend 10 people and found knapsacks (containing drugs) nearby," he said.

Attorney General Terry Goddard, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, said Brewer "does not understand the difference between illegal immigration and the organized criminals who are members of the violent drug cartels who pose a very a real danger."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Battle brews over Ariz. immigration law

  1. Closed captioning of: Battle brews over Ariz. immigration law

    >>> will be saying.

    >>> from the streets of phoenix to the halls of a federal courthouse . the battle over arizona 's imkbrags law is growing more intense. the justice department is moving forward with a lawsuit against arizona . it's an effort to block the state's controversial immigration law . let's bring in mike viqueira. he's live at the white house . mike, the lawsuit, while it was expected, the way it was unveiled, that's what everyone is saying is unusual.

    >> well, very interesting. the secretary of state, of course, hillary clinton was touring south america last week. back on june eighth, she gave an interview to the local media in ecuador, one of the countries she was visiting where she said flatly, point blank, the u.s. justice department is going to sue arizona over that new controversial law. nobody really discovered it until the other day. somebody came up with it on an internet website . yes, now it's been confirmed. the justice department is going to move ahead. not much of a surprise. they have in the yet filed the lawsuit. that law takes effect on july 29th . but obviously an international controversy here. we heard it from the president of mexico and no other place but the south lawn of the white house during an arrival ceremony. one of the first things out of his mouth was the objections to the controversy shm immigratiial immigra tion law. it may violate not only american law but american core values. the basis of the justice department lawsuit simply that federal law would supersede any state law . this is the federal domain. meanwhile, the many people -- many people including the president are talking about beefing up the border first. obviously, this is not only a sensitive political issue, a controversial political issue on both sides. the president has sent 1200 national allege guard troops down there or will. the governor brewer has been here talking with the president about that, about some of the other things that are of concern to arizonans, namely, the boycotts from some state and local governments and other entities who are upset about this law. we should add, however, thomas, our own polling, nbc news/" wall street journal " polling showing that most americans favor the crackdown in arizona .

    >> thank you, mike.

    >>> a new report this morning

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