Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu Thursday during a Senate hearing.

During a Senate hearing Thursday in Washington D.C., Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu backed Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever’s claim that Border Patrol agents are being instructed not to arrest all illegal border crossers to keep apprehension numbers down.

The national chief of the Border Patrol has called the claim 100 percent false.

Babeu said he doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of the practice but told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he received confirmation from two sources.

He said Pinal County Sheriff’s Lt. Matt Thomas told him, “I have heard that myself directly from Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector."

And he said that T.J. Bonner, the recently-retired president of the Border Patrol agents’ union, National Border Patrol Council, told him by phone that it’s “absolutely” occurring.

Babeu said that Bonner hasn’t heard it first hand, either, but that many agents have given him “first hand accounts of that fact.”

“I don’t have it first hand myself but I can tell you we need help in Arizona,” Babeu said.  

Babeu replaced Dever in the hearing — entitled “Securing the border: progress at the local level" — after a scheduling conflict prevented Dever from attending. Dever submitted testimony for the record.

The two Republican sheriffs are partners in nationwide, Web-based fundraising effort, called “”

Dever made his allegations earlier this month in an interview with Fox News and renewed them up in a statement this week.

On Monday, the national chief of the U.S. Border Patrol wrote a letter to Dever, calling the claim unwarranted and inaccurate.

"The assertion is completely, 100 percent false and, most disturbingly, it unfairly casts a negative light on the hard work done each day in service to the nation and at risk to themselves by the men and women of the Border Patrol," wrote Chief Michael Fisher. "That it comes from a fellow law enforcement official makes it especially offensive."

"Law enforcement and border security decisions made at the operational level require the apprehension and arrest of every illegal border crosser," Fisher wrote. "Your unwarranted allegation to the contrary is just wrong."

Cochise County Sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas said this week that Dever stands behind his allegation, which he has made several times before.

“I do not make this stuff up,” said Dever in an emailed statement. “I can unequivocally say what I have told you comes from Border Patrol agents who work the problem every day and other federal government officials from various organizations. Some of it is 3 years old, some of it is current.”

Local 2544, the Tucson Sector chapter of the agents' union, posted on its website that Dever is right.

“We have seen so many slick shenanigans pulled in regards to ‘got-aways’ and entry numbers that at times it seems David Copperfield is running the Border Patrol,” the post says. “Creating the illusion that all is well and you can start having family picnics in the areas where we work has been going on far too long.”

Dever told Fox News that he planned to tell the Senate committee about the substance of his conversations with Border Patrol agents. But, when the committee moved the hearing back a day, Dever was unable to attend, Capas said. The committee informed the sheriff of the change the middle of last week, she said.

"It was just too late," Capas said. "They changed it to the seventh, not him, and he just couldn't make it."

Babeu testified that Mexican drug cartels should be the focus of law enforcement.

“I bring a message from Arizona: Mexico is not our enemy. President Calderon, the leaders of Mexico, are not our enemy. The people, the citizens of Mexico, are not our enemy,” Babeu said. “It is the drug cartels of Mexico that have destabilized Mexico, nearly toppling their government, who are the enemy of Mexico, of America.”

Citing kidnappings and shootings among drug traffickers in Arizona, Babeu said Thursday: “That violence isn’t coming here. It’s here.”

Elected in November 2008, Babeu has earned nationwide recognition as a border-security hawk, supporting Arizona’s immigration enforcement law, calling for more troops and fences on the border, and criticizing the Obama administration’s border security plan.

But while he’s made dozens of appearances on national TV and radio, Thursday was Babeu’s first testimony at a Senate hearing, said spokesman Tim Gaffney. He’s scheduled to speak at a similar House hearing in May, Gaffney said.

Babeu repeated his frequently-used claim Thursday that Pinal County is "the No. 1 pass-through county for drug- and human-smuggling in America."

He acknowledged that people might ask about Pima, Cochise and Santa Cruz counties but said that the Border Patrol has told him that “all roads lead to Pinal County.”

County-by-county breakdown of apprehensions and drug seizures carried out by the U.S. Border Patrol in Arizona show that 95 percent of all apprehensions and pounds of marijuana seized in Arizona from Oct. 1, 2007, through March 17, 2011, have occurred in Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties, figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show.

Pinal County accounted for just 2 percent of all apprehensions and pounds of marijuana seized over this 3 1/2-year span.

Also during the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., repeated what he’s been saying recently: progress has been made at the border but it’s far from secure. Raging drug violence in Mexico could spillover at anytime, he said. 

“I appreciate the fact that our border towns are safe on our side of the border but is not logical to assume that will be the case when the level of violence on the other side of the border continues to escalate,” McCain said. “It just can’t happen.”

“There aren't many citizens in the southern part of my state but they should have the right to live in a secure environment,” McCain said. “They should have the right to drop their kids off at the bus stop without being in fear of them being endangered.”

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or