A State of Siege in Texas?

August 4, 2010

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced this week that the 1,200 National Guard troops that President Barack Obama ordered to the southwest border were deployed on Aug. 1, and hundreds of additional Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are being sent to the border to target dangerous criminals and help shore up security.

I asked Erica Schommer and Celestino Gallegos, Amnesty International members in Texas, what it’s been like living near the border. They were glad to set me straight!  They wrote:

If you are like most Americans, you probably believe that our southern border is under siege.  Recently, media coverage has had many people from D.C., New York, and other places far from the border talking about the crime and violence in the borderlands as if there was a crisis in the U.S.  For those of us who live on that border, the report released by the FBI was welcome news, confirming what many of us know:  statistics show that the border is safer than many places in the U.S.

We live ten miles from the Mexican border.  The increase in violence in Mexico has indeed impacted our lives: we do not go to Mexico nearly as much as we used to, and when we do, we are much more cautious. But no, the violence that has plagued Mexico since the inception of President Calderon’s war on the drug cartels has not “spilled-over” into the U.S. as many outside commentators have claimed.  Here in the U.S., life feels no different.

Nevertheless, pundits and opportunistic politicians have seized on the dramatic violence in Mexico to justify border militarization and undertake draconian immigration enforcement measures in the U.S.  While these measures may cater to the fears of the American public, they neither offer a long term humanitarian solution to our broken immigration system, nor provide any security to border residents.  Moreover, if adopted, these measures will result in significant human and civil rights violations of border residents.

We don’t want to live in a militarized zone. Would you? As it is, Border Patrol vehicles are a daily reminder of enforcement in our neighborhoods.  We don’t want to hear helicopters over head and see tanks stationed by the bridges, like there are on the Mexican side of the border.  We don’t want surveillance cameras in unmanned drones tracking our mundane daily activities.  It is not necessary and it is not welcome.

Policy makers need to study the statistics and get input from border residents and the various border police agencies, before making any significant changes.  It is shameful that lawmakers will spend millions on walls and troops for excessive security along the border in counties consistently ranked among the top 5 poorest of their size in the nation. We need money for schools, public transportation, and infrastructure in poor neighborhoods, not increased immigration enforcement.

Border residents have long paid the price of successive initiatives that supposedly secure the United States.  Our communities are already subject to increased police and federal law enforcement presence, intense surveillance, and internal Customs and Border Protection checkpoints over 50 miles from the border, which subject people to additional immigration inspections and the relaxation of constitutional standards.  We already deal with adequate scrutiny from local law enforcement and should not be asked to give up more of our rights on the false pretense that it is necessary for national security.

The rhetoric about border security is a transparent stalling tactic employed by conservative lawmakers who are unwilling to engage in a serious dialogue about comprehensive immigration reform.  The problem with the “secure the borders first” dialogue, however, is that there are no standards for determining when the border has become “safe”.  Moreover, the proponents of border security first offer no means of achieving it other than complete militarization and a three tiered wall across the entire border, coupled with massive immigration sweeps and deportations throughout the country.  But even that, at great expense, would not completely stop unauthorized immigration.

The next time you see or hear someone talking about the violence on the border, think about the statistics from the FBI.  El Paso, Texas, across the border from one of the most violent cities in Mexico has lower crime rates than many similarly sized cities in the U.S.  Despite the rhetoric, our communities aren’t lawless wastelands run by drug traffickers and smugglers.  Rather, they are diverse, vibrant cities and towns with a culture unlike any in the rest of the U.S.  In America, it is unacceptable to pursue policies that restrict the rights of some residents based on where they live, based on a professed attempt to protect the rest of the country.  Such misguided policies are blatantly discriminatory and un-American revealing an utter lack of respect for the lives and liberty of border residents.

Thanks for that perspective Erica and Celestino!