Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Heads bowed in prayer, we stand at a bucolic spot on the banks of the Rio Grande known by locals as Neely’s Crossing. Like most of West Texas, there is nothing here. On the other side, drug wars have turned Mexican border towns in the Valle de Juárez and elsewhere into killing grounds.
As Hudspeth County deputies armed with AR-15 semi-automatic weapons stand guard, we close in around Reverend Jim Garlow. “Lord, we thank you Lord for gathering us here,” he says. “We thank you for all you have given us and our great nation. We ask you Lord to protect American exceptionalism, to protect U.S. national sovereignty, and secure our border.” Garlow, a prominent evangelical minister, recently had been selected by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to serve as chairman of Renewing American Leadership (ReAL), a new organization dedicated to promoting the “‘otherness’ of America’s exceptional culture and government [whose] manifest success . . . . has made us a target.”
Garlow was speaking to the attendees at a two-day “Border School” sponsored by the Border Sheriff’s Posse, an evangelical group that teams up with the Texas Border Sheriff ’s Coalition (TBSC) and the Southwestern Border Sheriff ’s Coalition to educate Christians about threats some law-enforcement officials believe loom across the border.
Neely’s Crossing became famous for a January 23, 2006 incident that Hudspeth sheriff and TBSC chairman Arvin West contends was a “Mexican military incursion.” The day before we visited the site, we viewed blurry footage of heavily armed men scrambling across the river toward the Mexican side. Several loads of marijuana float downriver as the men try to regroup and get a military-like vehicle, a Hummer or possibly Humvee, back onto Mexican soil. The Mexican government vehemently denied Sheriff West’s accusation that a Mexican military unit had been escorting drug smugglers. The Border Patrol, which had officers at Neely’s Crossing that day, also declined to support West’s account.
Claiming that the federal government has abandoned its border-control responsibilities, West, who is a mainstay of the Border School, warns students and residents of U.S. border communities, “Arm yourselves. It’s better to be tried by twelve than carried by six.”
This secure-the-line-at-all-costs attitude doesn’t merely foster right-wing ranting. West and other border sheriffs tout border-security lore like the Neely’s Crossing incident in congressional testimony, and FOX News frequently reports their assertions. The complaints that Washington isn’t fulfilling its responsibilities echo across border communities, despite the unprecedented increase over the past five years in the number of Border Patrol agents, immigrant-detention beds, and border barriers. Each year, billions of dollars flow to the border from the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice (DOJ).
Federal border policy is now effectively dictated by alarmist border-area sheriffs and politicians.
While there is little validity to complaints about the lack of federal funds for border security, the criticism about federal irresponsibility on border policy conveys an important truth. Since 9/11, the border has become a site of intensive national concern, not only surrounding immigration, but also drug wars and terrorism. In this context of increasing fear, the federal government has failed to assess the threats and address them coherently.
Instead, Washington has fed opportunistic local and state officials who use federal grants to shape the politics and operations of border security. There may be no cogent federal stance on border policy, but there is policy—dictated by alarmist border-area sheriffs and politicians and increasingly supported by the American public, Congress, and the Obama administration. To that end, the federal government is busy resurrecting discredited drug-war programs, deploying the National Guard, and opening new channels of assistance for border security by redirecting stimulus grants that were intended to repair the wider U.S. economy.
The Texas Paradigm
Nowhere has the post-9/11 border-security framework been so enthusiastically adopted—and adapted—as in Texas, where local law enforcement, the state political leadership, and a contingent of the congressional delegation have taken border security into their own hands, albeit largely with federal funding.
The shaping of what Governor Rick Perry calls the “Texas model of border security” began in the spring of 2005, when Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo “Sigi” Gonzalez, Jr. put out a call to his fellow Texas-border sheriffs to form the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, which includes twenty border counties. Over the past five years, the sheriffs of the TBSC have rallied law enforcement to secure the border, played a prominent role in the state’s “high-intensity border surges,” and launched Border Watch, a remote-surveillance program carried out by volunteer “virtual deputies.” In the process, the sheriffs have become the public face of Texas’s go-it-alone commitment to border security. We are the “can-do state,” Gonzalez says.
In PowerPoint presentations, congressional testimony, and media interviews, Gonzalez warns of al Qaeda terrorists setting up sleeper cells, Mexican drug cartels crisscrossing the border to terrorize U.S. communities, and ominous flyovers by the black helicopters of the Mexican army. He explains that his frustration at the “inadequacy of our federal government to protect our border in preventing a potential terrorist and their weapons of mass destruction from entering our country” spurred him to organize the TBSC in 2005. Two years later he founded the Southwestern Border Sheriff ’s Coalition.
Federal border policy is now effectively dictated by alarmist border-area sheriffs and politicians.
As any Texas-border sheriff will tell you, “Operation Linebacker” is the tactical core of the state’s model. If a terrorist, criminal alien, drug smuggler, or illegal border crosser makes it through the Border Patrol’s frontline, the linebackers—sheriffs and their deputies—are there to make the tackle. In a state where football is a barely secular religion, the analogy captures hearts and minds. It also conveniently complements the federal government’s own structure of local-federal cooperation in immigration and border enforcement, thereby facilitating the flow of DHS and DOJ funding. At the same time, though, most border sheriffs insist that their departments actually are ahead of the feds, a posture repeatedly underscored by Governor Perry, who calls the border sheriffs the state’s “first line of defense.”
Perry quickly allied himself with the TBSC. He gave it funds from the governor’s Criminal Justice Division and launched an umbrella border-security program called Operation Border Star. Together, Operations Linebacker and Border Star were integrated into the state’s homeland-security apparatus, which Perry and Homeland Security Office Director Steve McCraw began assembling in 2004 with DHS grants. McCraw is a tight-jawed, no-nonsense former FBI officer, who now heads Texas’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) while continuing his duties at the Homeland Security Office. “Texas,” he boasts, “has created a new paradigm for border security, and the Border Patrol is now adopting parts of it.”
McCraw and Perry summarize that paradigm with an oft-repeated maxim: “There can be no homeland security without border security.” As outlined in the state’s Homeland Security Strategic Plan 2010–2015, the model is designed to “prevent terrorists and criminal enterprises from exploiting Texas’ international borders, including land, air, and sea.”
Border Star, a main vehicle for the Texas paradigm, is more than boots on the ground. Encouraged by DHS’s call for locally networked information-gathering—and by infusions of DHS and DOJ dollars—the governor’s office directed the creation of intelligence and “fusion” centers that bring together law-enforcement agencies. McCraw has put his stamp on Border Star through such high-tech information-gathering initiatives as the Texas Data Exchange Program and the TxMap crime-mapping project, as well as through the Border Security and Operations Center in Austin and the six Joint Intelligence and Operations Centers, four of which are housed in the headquarters of Border Patrol sectors and work together with the Border Patrol’s Border Intelligence Centers. The most recent additions to Border Star’s stable are the Unified Commands, which serve as a network for law-enforcement agencies in 45 counties of the borderland region.
In the can-do state, there’s a can-do attitude about border security not found elsewhere. “Is it really possible to seal the 1200-mile Texas border?” I ask McCraw. It’s a question I often ask, and most border-security practitioners and observers respond that the borderlands are too immense and too remote to control completely. But McCraw doesn’t equivocate. “We can secure the border in Texas with enough resources,” he answers without hesitation. Sheriff West is equally confident about his ability to secure Hudspeth County: “Just give me 75 more deputies, armed with AR-15s or AK-47s, enough trucks and ATVs, and we can shut the border down,” he told me.
McCraw says he is committed to “secur[ing] the border for Texans,” and he and the governor think other states and DHS should follow their lead. In February 2009 Governor Perry wrote to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to invite her to observe Operation Border Star, so that she “might consider this approach as a national model to increase border security.”
It’s unclear what Perry and McCraw would show Napolitano other than the enthusiasm with which the state and border law enforcement have jumped on the border-security bandwagon. From the start the Texas paradigm has been hounded by public-relations scandals, widespread skepticism about reputed results, and charges of power-grabbing and political opportunism. Soon after the sheriffs launched Operation Linebacker, their increased patrols and traffic checkpoints were met with indignation and outrage. Residents complained that checkpoints instituted by then-sheriff Leo Samaniego in the El Paso area functioned as a dragnet for illegal immigrants and led to few arrests of criminals who could be regarded as a threat to community safety, let alone homeland security. The series of border “surges”—beginning in January 2006 with another football-themed program, Operation Free Safety—were initially accompanied by great fanfare orchestrated by Perry’s office but have since been abandoned after they came under repeated fire. In Austin and non-border areas of the state, legislators and residents were concerned that public-safety resources were being used for political purposes. A review last year by a state commission found that the diversion of state troopers under Border Star contributed to DPS’s “critical personnel shortage, weakening its ability to protect the public.” Meanwhile border residents, including some of the sheriffs, complain that the state troopers gave out more traffic tickets but arrested no major drug runners.
Some of the most severe criticism of the Texas border-security paradigm has come from within state government. Perry’s border-security operations, while now directed from McCraw’s base at DPS, originated in the governor’s Homeland Security Office and the associated Governor’s Department of Emergency Management (GDEM). This created tensions and major communications gaps with DPS, which regarded some of the new homeland- and border-security projects as duplications of their efforts.
A July 2009 report by the state legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission recognized this problem, concluding, “lines of authority between DPS, GDEM, and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security are unclear.” To remedy that problem, DPS took over GDEM, whose name was changed to the Texas Department of Emergency Management. Those tensions and communications problems between the governor’s office and DPS dissipated when Perry replaced the DPS director last year with his own man, Steve McCraw.
Along with the patrolling methods, Border Star’s information-technology systems also have come under scrutiny. An April 2007 article in the Texas Observer described the Data Exchange program as “a headlong pursuit of control through information hoarding for a project in search of a purpose.” “Money,” the article contended, “has been squandered, sensitive data potentially lost, and security warnings unheeded.” In a March 2009 study, Operation Border Star: Wasted Millions and Missed Opportunities, the Texas ACLU concluded that the
recent development of a vast regional network of fusion centers and ‘Joint Operations Intelligence Centers’ are not serving the goal of public safety and confusing valuable criminal intelligence with unimportant statistics and innocent activities.
At an April 29, 2010 legislative hearing in the booming city of McAllen (the border twin of Reynosa, Mexico), Texas ACLU director Terri Burke argued that the governor’s model of border security is “making Texans poorer, not safer.” More often the main result of the stepped-up patrols, she said, is the “inconvenience or harassment of law-abiding individuals, not the apprehension of violent criminals.” The ACLU’s review of Border Star found that rather than targeted surges, the governor’s border-security operations were indiscriminate sweeps. Some communities had more traffic stops than residents. Border Star, Burke added, has “done little if anything to interrupt the violent business of transnational drug smugglers and human traffickers.” No information offered by Perry or McCraw in their strategy statements, budget proposals for Border Star, legislative testimony, or campaign ads disputes that assessment.
The Texas paradigm of border security also has been subjected to the same sharp criticisms as the homeland- and border-security projects of DHS. Accusations of waste, dysfunction, duplication, absence of oversight, over-reliance on private contractors, and lack of direction are common. Meanwhile, tangible security improvements are nearly impossible to find. Border security in Texas is less the model for DHS that Perry brags about than a mirror of the federal government’s own willy-nilly implementation of border security.
In Texas, can-do confidence often is paired with arrogant go-it-alone posturing. That bluster was on display at a Tea Party rally in Austin on tax day in 2009, when Governor Rick Perry warned that Texas might once again secede from the Union, as it did in 1861. Earlier that year the governor rallied Tea Partiers by joining a chorus of Republican governors threatening to reject all or part of the Obama administration’s stimulus package for the states. Threats aside, Perry did, of course, accept funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—tens of millions of dollars of which are being used to underwrite Border Star.
Even so, Perry continues to boast of the state’s steadfast and solitary commitment to secure its border. In a recent campaign ad, Perry, who is running for his third term, declared, “If Washington won’t protect our border, Texas Will. Here along the Rio Grande we’re funding a border-wide crime control effort, led by local enforcement.” The ad features video of him walking with sheriff’s deputies on the banks of the river. This is an enduring theme. In a 2006 campaign ad, Sheriff Gonzalez attested, “When local law enforcement needed help protecting the border, Governor Perry was the only one who answered the call and delivered the resources needed to help us.”
Perry’s campaign ads never mention the fundamental role played by federal funds in launching and expanding Border Star and other state-directed border-security projects. This year’s infusion of ARRA stimulus dollars, which has given the Texas-border sheriffs and Border Star programs an extra boost, is only the latest example. Federal funds have underwritten local and state border-security operations in Texas since 2004.
Grants from DHS began flowing to the state soon after the creation of the Department in 2003, establishing the foundation for the Texas paradigm. It wasn’t until fiscal year 2007 that Perry finally succeeded in persuading the state legislature to kick in about $50 million annually for Border Star, although that funding is now being eaten up by state’s financial crisis, and additional state funding for border security is not likely to materialize.
The concept of border security did not exist before 9/11, when the Border Patrol was primarily concerned with immigration violations.
Virtually all state-directed homeland-security programs to protect against terrorism and to secure the border are funded by DHS. Border counties in Texas receive about $20 million annually in DHS grants funneled through the governor’s office. In addition, DHS’s Operation Stonegarden provides the governor with an annual grant—$17.5 million in 2010—to be distributed to border law enforcement for its Operation Linebacker patrols.
Yet, for all of Homeland Security’s largesse, it is the Justice Department that has been most instrumental in paying for Texas’s border-security strategy. Starting in 2005 Perry began channeling DOJ funds from his office—through its Criminal Justice Division, Homeland Security Office, and Department of Emergency Management—to the TBSC, DPS, and border law-enforcement agencies. Also in 2005 the TBSC began receiving a $4.5$5 million annual congressional earmark via the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The TBSC uses the funds to pay Operation Linebacker overtime salaries and to buy equipment.
DOJ criminal-justice grants have been the silent partner in the state’s border-security campaign. From January 2006 through April 2010, the governor’s Criminal Justice Division dedicated $99.4 million for border-security initiatives, $80.1 million of which came from DOJ grants, including $39.5 million ARRA dollars.
That $39.5 million is a portion of a $90.3-million ARRA grant to the Criminal Justice Division, which, the governor’s office says, provides “the unique opportunity to strengthen the foundation of the criminal justice system in Texas by equipping agencies and communities with resources to enhance public safety.” Yet the distribution of nearly half of this ARRA funding to the governor’s dubious border-security initiatives underscores the contention that large sums of recovery funding are being used for pork-barrel projects to court political patronage. That contention is further supported by the fantastical claims that border sheriffs make in order to obtain the money.
For instance, the Hudspeth County Sheriff ’s Department, in its approved application for $415,000 in stimulus funds, proposed that a state-directed ARRA grant would enable County deputies to continue progress begun under Operation Linebacker in “responding to criminal activity, narco terrorism, human trafficking, and the brutal crimes associated with sophisticated and organized crimial enterprises.” The proposal’s account of border-security threats includes Sheriff West’s assertion that “the Mexican military crossed into Hudspeth County to protect smugglers [sic] marijuana.”
During one of my visits to West’s office, the sheriff launched into a story of how Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is training the drug cartels in terrorist tactics with the assistance and financing of al Qaeda. And during a break at the May 2010 TBSC meeting, Deputy Robert Wilson, Hudspeth’s grant-writer, solemnly reported that there are Middle Eastern terrorists on the border. “We know they are coming through,” he said. If that isn’t enough to get you terrified about border security, Wilson is convinced that there are Chinese soldiers—and Russians, too—immersing themselves in the Mexican population; one day they will “just put on their uniforms and come north.” Sheriff West, with his homespun style, silver tongue, and storyteller’s bravado, leaves you wondering how much of these border-security tales he actually believes, though he is only too happy to collect the federal money they attract.
The reliability of the supporting statistics in the ARRA grant applications is as questionable as the stories of terrorists on the border and Mexican military drug-running incursions. Hudspeth County reported that a previous DOJ grant enabled it to make 176 felony arrests and 176 felony convictions—an amazing performance by the county attorney. West hopes to best that record under the ARRA grant, which projects 200 arrests and 200 convictions for 2010. In its ARRA application to the governor’s office, the sheriff ’s department claimed that an internal review of its Operation Linebacker patrols “revealed that . . . the use of additional law enforcement resources in Hudspeth County prevent[ed] terrorist activities” and “resulted in a decrease in local crime rates by as much as 78%.” This is a county where incidences of violent crime are measured in the single digits and population is steadily declining.
The pork likely is flowing not only from the DOJ via Perry’s Criminal Justice Division, but from the federal government directly. Texas law-enforcement agencies are tapping a new DOJ criminal-justice program created by ARRA stimulus funds, the State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program: Combating Criminal Narcotics Activity Stemming from the Southern Border of the United States. Some grantees have used funding to channel drug users into treatment programs, but most follow the traditional drug-war practice of arresting and imprisoning drug users and street dealers.
Performance metrics are also drug-war standard issue: number of drug seizures, vehicle seizures, arrests, and sentenced inmates. In Cameron County, at Texas’s extreme southern tip, deputies of the newly created Special Investigations Unit are busy stuffing a hanger with high-value vehicles seized in drug busts. So successful is the new undercover narc unit that the department’s evidence room is now packed full with marijuana, and new seizures have to be stored in a large metal container outside the building.
One of the givens of the drug war at home and abroad is that drug enforcement breeds corruption. Since 1994 four South Texas sheriffs have been convicted of drug-related corruption. One of the more recent cases is former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu, who is serving a 24-year sentence for using his office to extort money from drug offenders. Just west of Cameron County, in the Rio Grande Valley, former Sheriff Reymundo “Rey” Guerra of Starr County is serving a 64-month sentence after being convicted last year of facilitating Gulf Cartel drug trafficking through his jurisdiction.
Despite this recent history, Cameron County’s current sheriff, Omar Lucio, won a $2.2 million counter-narcotics grant to fund the new twelve-person Special Investigations Unit to “combat drug and arms trafficking along the border and reduce money laundering, drug-related crime, and community violence.” Lucio calls the new narcotics campaign Operation Border Eagle. According to the Cameron County Sheriff ’s Department, since the implementation of Border Eagle, the monthly average arrest rate increased from ten to 29 and the vehicle-seizure rate from three to six. Border Eagle develops twenty narcotics cases a month, up from the six the Department generated before ARRA funding kicked in. With regard to arms trafficking, there is no progress report, but the sheriff did tell the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance that the number of handguns seized each month by the narcotics unit increased from one to three.
Sheriff Arvin West, with his silver tongue and bravado, makes you wonder how much of his fantastical border-security tales he believes.
According to available evidence, increased border security, like the failed war on drugs, has not made illicit drugs less accessible. The market for illegal drugs entering the country from Mexico involves 25 million Americans. And, as border-security operations intensify, the National Drug Intelligence Center warns, “the overall threat posed by illicit drugs will not diminish in the near term.”
These days border sheriffs routinely count on at least two and often three or four sources of funding for overtime border patrolling. Caught up in the alleged urgency of supporting border sheriffs, no one—not DHS, not DOJ, not Congress, and not states’ homeland security offices that distribute these grants—is evaluating the impact of this border-security aid on border law enforcement. There are accounting audits of individual grants, but no agency is watching for double-dipping, whereby law-enforcement organs receive money from multiple sources for the same purpose.
Faced with unprecedented sums of federal funding, many rural sheriffs departments have been forced to hire grant administrators to handle the paperwork. But the sheriffs have few complaints—other than that they deserve still more money, especially to pay for full-time employees rather than overtime for deputies. Sparsely inhabited Hudspeth County—just 3,058 inhabitants; 0.7 per square mile—is awash in federal border-security funding. The county, which has an annual budget of about $3.1 million, receives as much as $1 million per year in border-security grants. In Zapata County, Sheriff Gonzalez has so much border-security funding from DHS and DOJ that each of his deputies is assigned two vehicles, a patrol car for regular duty and a new SUV for overtime border-security operations.
The ballooning budgets of the sheriffs departments are the envy of the commissioners in Texas’s rural, border-area counties, sixteen of which are among the hundred poorest counties in the United States. Border sheriffs enjoy virtually unlimited overtime-pay accounts, new fleets of vehicles, and the latest security technology. Meanwhile, commissioners watch helplessly as county revenues sink because of declining populations and stagnating local economies, as social services and schools plunge into decrepitude.
Drug War Dinosaur
“Border security” is a flexible policy framework that comfortably accommodates crackdowns on crime, immigrants, and drugs. Enforcement areas have merged both rhetorically and in practice. Thus the DOJ criminal justice grants that fund border-security operations in Texas are based on a two-decade-old federal program to prop up the criminal-justice systems of states and localities fighting the war on drugs.
Congress created the Byrne Memorial and Local Law Enforcement Grant Program (named after a New York police officer murdered by drug-gang members) as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. Though the Program, renamed the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant in 2005, was established during the Reagan administration, Democrats, notably Joe Biden, have been its staunchest supporters. In 1988—with Michael Dukakis as the party’s less-than-ruthless standard-bearer in the presidential election—Democrats in Congress were especially eager to brandish the party’s tough-on-crime, tougher-on-drugs principles. In the mid-1990s Byrne funding rose to and stayed at about $1 billion annually, driven by a convergence of political enthusiasm for drug enforcement, President Clinton’s appeal to law-enforcement and crime-crackdown constituencies, and the emergence of an anti-immigrant backlash in Congress.
Although Byrne grants to the states (which get 60 percent of annual appropriations) and localities can be used for a variety of public-safety and criminal-justice programs, historically they have been deployed to fight the drug war at home, mainly through the creation and maintenance of regional drug task forces and local counter-narcotics units. Nine of every ten Byrne dollars that flowed from Washington to Austin in the 1990s supported these counter-narcotics teams. Undercover narcs and allied prosecutors in small towns in Texas mounted aggressive (and criminal) campaigns to round up the usual suspects—mainly African-Americans. Perhaps the most notorious case was the arrest in 1999 of 46 mostly African-American Tulia residents on drug charges based on the perjured testimony of gypsy cop Tom Coleman—named “Lawman of the Year” by then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn. Currently serving as the state’s junior senator, Cornyn is a strong proponent of the entire range of border-security programs and is the highly esteemed friend of the state’s rural border sheriffs.
The persistence and support of legal-advocacy groups such as the ACLU and Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and progressive groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance and the NAACP helped expose the pervasive corruption, waste, and civil rights violations involved in counter-narcotics operations both in Texas and in the country at large. But it was criticism leveled at the Byrne funds by conservative organizations such as the National Taxpayers Union and the Heritage Foundation—that the grants were wasteful and furthered federal intervention in state and local affairs—that precipitated President George W. Bush’s 2005 decision to cut $940 million from federal-assistance programs that were “not able to effectively demonstrate an impact on reducing crime.”
At the border, however, growing national concerns about the high cost of incarceration, the futility of the drug war, and the over-federalization of the criminal-justice and law-enforcement systems all fade. The language of border control collapses and intensifies a continuum of threats: illegal border crossers merge seamlessly with illegal drug users, criminal aliens, marijuana backpackers, transnational gangs, drug-trafficking organizations, narco-terrorists, smuggled weapons of mass destruction, and jihadists. And the Obama administration has responded as though the rhetoric matches reality.
Obama’s preferred vehicle has been the Byrne program. Byrne grants to California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas dropped from $100.9 million in 2005 to $34.7 million in 2008. Under Obama, the trend has reversed; Byrne funding to the four Southwest-border states rose to $105.5 million in 2009. But that number only reflects traditional sources of Byrne funding. The real comeback for Byrne is the massive injection of ARRA funding for criminal justice and law enforcement. In 2009 Southwest-border governors took in $432.6 million in Byrne ARRA funds for spending through 2011.
The Obama administration’s decision to reverse Byrne’s fortunes was no surprise to those who have followed the role of the Democratic congressional leadership in increasing federal support for state and local criminal-justice operations. Nevertheless, the reversal is stunning in its proportions.
Criminal-justice and drug-policy reformers consider justice assistance grants such as Byrne a drug-war dinosaur and contend that Obama’s decision to pump up the program with stimulus funding will lead to more of the same: drug task forces that inflate statistics and increase arrests of street-level offenders in order to drive funding. Nastassia Walsh of the Justice Policy Institute told me: “We are concerned with the increased funding for police through Byrne and COPS [Community Oriented Policing Services], and especially with the ARRA, as these have [been] shown to increase arrests, especially of people of color, and increase prison populations at a time when states are looking to reduce the number of people in their prisons.”
A recent Justice Policy Institute report concludes that most new Byrne funding still “goes to law enforcement, rather than prevention, drug treatment, or community services.” Like the drug war abroad, the drug war at home, especially on the border, primarily targets the supply side of the drug market through enforcement and incarceration, while only marginally addressing demand issues through treatment and education. Thus Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Deputy State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Diego, argues that every federally granted dollar spent by states on low-level arrests may generate more than $10 in new costs. The states pay for prosecution, incarceration, and other criminal-justice expenses, and then deal with the consequences of recidivism when drug offenders are imprisoned without treatment.
Dooley-Sammuli, who is spearheading a campaign in California to reorient Byrne funding toward cost-saving and community-based alternatives to the incarceration of low-level nonviolent offenders, says: “This is our money, and we need to ensure that we use it to improve the criminal justice system, as the DOJ-grant guidance now advises, rather than tying it to a drug war that everyone knows has failed.”
But Texas isn’t listening. Since 2006 the Texas DPS has contracted with Abrams Learning and Information Systems (ALIS), an Arlington, Virginia homeland-security contractor, to establish and operate its border intelligence operations. During a three-week “border surge operation” in mid-2006, ALIS Vice-President Leo Rios, told reporters, without any supporting documentation, that the surge demonstrated that “we’re capable of shutting down all transports of illegal drugs and criminals in this area to zero for up to seven days.” Rios touted the company’s role in Texas border-security operations at a homeland-security technology conference in Washington last October, and credited ALIS’s innovative TxMap crime-mapping system with its supposedly stellar results. Who can doubt that on the border there is no difference between the war on drugs and homeland security? Even those responsible refuse to differentiate.
Fear, Crime, Stray Dogs
Despite the alarm about transnational gangs, criminal enterprises, and the shocking rise in carjackings on the Mexican side, crime rates are low in large border cities. FBI crime statistics show that El Paso, where crime rates have dropped by a third over the past ten years, is the second-safest U.S. city with a population greater than 500,000. Thus far this year, there has been only one murder in El Paso, compared to the more than 1,700 across the river in the sister city of Juárez.
The crime numbers in rural border counties are also reassuringly low and falling. The FBI’s Unified Crime Report (UCR), which tracks major categories of crimes—murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, and arson—doesn’t support the dire picture of mayhem and murder painted by border sheriffs and politicians. From 2007 to 2008 (the most recent figures publicly available for counties), the UCR numbers fell from 96 acts to 74 in Sheriff West’s Hudspeth County and from 536 acts to 382 in Gonzalez’s Zapata County (population 13,792).
Since the UCR statistics challenge the sheriffs’ and Perry’s claims about border crime waves and spillover violence, border-area officials are seeking to reframe the debate by stressing the deterrent effect of Operations Linebacker and Border Star. “Our sheriffs are sworn to uphold the peace,” explains Don Reay, Executive Director of the TBSC, “and that’s what they are doing so well. It’s cheaper, after all, to prevent than to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate. Our border-security operations are reducing crime on the border.”
Sheriffs and officials in large border cities tend to share the federal government’s assessment: drug-related violence in Mexico is not spilling over in any significant way. Sheriff Lupe Treviño of Hidalgo County, which includes the thriving border cities of Edinburg and McAllen, contends, “We haven’t seen any true spillover violence on the border since 1916,” when Pancho Villa and his band crossed into Columbus, New Mexico. “Certainly there are links between Mexico drug cartels and the illegal drug sales here,” he tells me, “but there is no direct connection and so many degrees of separation between the Mexican cartels and U.S. drug users and street dealers that it cannot credibly be said that violence is spilling over.”
The notion that the borderlands are lawless and must be secured at all costs has become a bipartisan assumption.
“That’s chamber-of-commerce talk,” Gonzalez huffs, a phrase echoed by other Texas and Southwestern Coalition principals. Officials in border metropolitan areas like El Paso, McAllen, and Brownsville downplay spillover violence and other threats to border security, he says, “out of fear that they will lose their tourists and scare away some business.” Teclo Garcia, director of government relations for McAllen, disagrees. “We are, of course, not blind to the cartel violence across the border,” he says, “but the image of spillover violence is promoted by politics, by those who are using violence for political gain.”
El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles also dismisses the alarmism about spillover violence. “What we see in our community,” Wiles says, “is that people are concerned with graffiti and stray dogs. All the issues of urban areas. Extreme violence is just not happening here, and we need to revisit how resources are expended on the border. That’s a message to send the administration.”
Still, the federal courts in Hidalgo County and other border jurisdictions are clogged with Mexican nationals. For the most part, these “criminal aliens” are not being prosecuted for the types of crimes that appear in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting but rather for immigration violations—illegal entry, illegal reentry, visa overstays, etc. Nationwide, more than half of the prosecutions in federal courts are for immigration violations. In the Southwest the number is far higher—more than 80 percent.
With crime comes punishment. The privately run detention centers of the U.S. Marshals Service (such as the West Texas Detention Facility in Hudspeth County), the county jails that hold the Marshals’ pretrial detainees, and the privately managed criminal-alien prisons of the Bureau of Prisons in the Southwest are filling up with these criminal aliens.
The Bandwagon Rolls On
At Neely’s Crossing, my head bowed with the others, I reflect on the past and wonder about the future.
When I first came to know the border more than three decades ago, I was working with an immigrant-organizing project in Maricopa County, Arizona. I considered this strand of river, this line in the sand, mostly a point of entry and return for the Mexican campesinos who came to the citrus groves around Phoenix and returned to the villages in Querétaro after the picking season’s end. Generally they crossed without incident, like those locals who not so long ago went back and forth at Neely’s Crossing.
But times have changed, as the border sheriffs, the Border Sheriff’s Posse, and political leaders like Rick Perry rightly say. Violence pervades the Mexican borderlands and haunts illegal border crossings. New policies are needed. Open borders are seriously considered only by the most idealistic, and the traditional broad acceptance of a moderate level of illegal border crossing is just a memory.
I don’t mind joining others in prayer, but not this one. I realize, though, that the ideological substance of Garlow’s prayer is less a fringe sentiment than a fundamental reflection of the newly dominant national politics.
Before the September 11 terrorist attacks the term used was “border control” or “border protection,” and only rarely “border security” or “securing the border.” But attitudes have since changed dramatically. The mission statement of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), created in 2003, dedicates the agency to protecting the homeland against “dangerous people and goods”—a clear reference in the post-9/11 environment to terrorists and weapons of mass destruction and an indication of the vastly increased scope of border operations.
The fusion of border control and national security precipitated an ongoing boom in immigration and border enforcement. As part of DHS, CBP and its brother agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, immediately benefited from congressional munificence. But it wasn’t until 2005, as the national concern about terrorism began to diminish and the debate over immigration reform started to roil politics, that the border-security bandwagon began rolling in earnest. The House Immigration Reform Caucus, then led by arch-restrictionist Tom Tancredo, launched preemptive strikes against the proposals for comprehensive immigration reform that began surfacing in Congress. Although the hard-line anti-immigrant measures mostly were defeated, they succeeded in shifting the focus of immigration reform from legalization and temporary-work programs to “enforcement-first” policy.
Moving in a parallel and sometimes intersecting path, the Bush administration in 2005 let loose its own border-security zeitgeist under the leadership of DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who promised that year to achieve “operational control of both the northern and southern borders within five years.” Bush deployed 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in mid-2006 to “deter illegal immigration.” Bush accepted the restrictionists’ demand that a secure border be a precondition of immigration reform. The House and Senate joined to pass the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and the Bush administration responded by making the steel fence and the proposed “virtual fence” the centerpieces of CBP’s new Secure Border Initiative.
Back then border security was almost solely about immigration, but Senator Cornyn stressed at the time that the debate over immigration reform is “first and foremost about our Nation’s security.”
One of the early players in the merger of the immigration crackdown and border security was Congressman John Culberson, a Texas Republican and member of the House Immigration Reform Caucus. Culberson introduced the Border Law Enforcement Act of 2005, which aimed to combat the specter of “lawlessness in border areas” and brought together anti-immigration hardliners and Texas-border Democrats such as U.S. Representatives Silvestre Reyes and Henry Cuellar. The bill provided talking points that currently shape much of the border-security debate and the funding process, namely that federal officials have been incapable of preventing “criminals, terrorists, and foreign nationals who have entered the United States illegally from engaging in criminal activity” and that the border’s “local and state law enforcement officials are being overwhelmed by growing lawlessness.” Culberson’s proposal never became law, but he did come through with TBSC’s $5 million earmark, the first of five it has received to date.
In 2006 the Border Law Enforcement Act largely was incorporated into the now infamous Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Act of 2006, sponsored by Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner. The bill passed the House, setting off massive pro-immigrant protests around the country. Regarded at the time as a draconian measure, some of its provisions—building a border fence, making illegal reentry a felony, involving local law enforcement in immigrant arrests—are basic elements of current border-security operations.
Today the notion that lawlessness is taking over the borderlands and that the border needs securing at all costs has become a bipartisan assumption with the imprimatur of the president. Obama steadily has increased aid to border law enforcement. In August he signed the latest security-funding package: $600 million in “emergency” spending to hire patrol and customs agents and pay for communication and surveillance equipment, including unmanned aircraft. He also has deployed additional National Guard troops to the border, giving credence to the unwarranted assertions of many border politicians and law-enforcement officers that the borderlands are reeling from crime.
Upgraded to a national-security issue, border control is now afflicted by the fear-mongering, false threat assessments, and budget-gouging that pervade national-security politics. Sheriffs, together with their federal partners, are resorting to the old drug-war and crime-fighting paradigms that have distorted domestic and foreign affairs for more than four decades. Politics and money, far more than any concerted attention on real dangerous people and goods, are driving a border-security bandwagon unburdened by meaningful oversight. And with its seemingly unlimited reserves of federal dollars, the bandwagon seems unstoppable.
Photograph: Eugenio del Bosque
Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.