The Battle Over Border Security
Bloomberg News is reporting that when House lawmakers leave Washington this week for a five week break they’ll be buttonholed at public events — even hounded at the grocery store — by advocates for and against immigration reform.
Beefing up border security is one flashpoint.
The Senate has passed a $46 billion plan to double the number of agents on the U.S.-Mexico border, and add more cameras, sensors, drones and fencing.
But there’s new border security plan that’s coming to light that politicians and border town residents are seizing on. It was was quietly and unanimously approved by the House Homeland Security Committee back in May.
The plan simply instructs Homeland Security to write a border security plan that ensures that 90 percent of the illegal border crossers in high-traffic areas are caught within 33 months, and across the entire southern border within five years.
The sheriffs’ perspective
It’s is winning the backing of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition.
Don Reay is the executive director of that organization, and says that because the fence is inconsistent, “people are beating the border all the time.”
He says this means that there is no consistent check on who comes in and out of the United States and Mexico, which makes law enforcement officials’ work more dangerous.
“You don’t know if you have a person looking for work, you don’t know if you have a person trying to visit a family, you don’t know if you have a fugitive, a heavy criminal or somebody carrying drugs,” Reay said. “The whole purpose of the fence was to divert that kind of traffic into more open areas, which would give the border patrol primarily a better response time to apprehend or to at least detain, depending what the situation is.”
Reay says the sheriffs he works with are aware of the ethical implications of fortifying the border fence.
“One sheriff made the statement that the fence was an effective tool for him within the city of El Paso,” Reay said. “However, he was philosophically against the fence.”
A border mayor weighs in
On the other side of the issue is Arturo Garino, the mayor of Nogales, Arizona, a border community.
He is against fortifying the fence, saying it hurts his community’s economic well-being by suggesting that border communities aren’t safe. Garino says it has already reduced tourism in the town.
“If we put razor wire, we are still indicating that it’s not a safe place to be,” Garino said. “We are one of the safest communities along the border.”
He says the border has become a sinister place in the American imagination, but that that’s not actually the case.
“When I was a police officer and a deputy in the ’80s, we had a lot more drugs and everything coming across, and nobody seemed to care,” Garino said. “We do not need to show that force if the crisis isn’t there. Let’s try not to spend $46 billion on border security and militarize our borders, and then make us look economically not sound.”
- Arturo Garino, mayor of Nogales, Ariz.
- Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, members of Congress are leaving Washington this week for a five-week break. They will not get any break, likely, from their constituents about that NSA surveillance program or one of the other hot issues of the day, immigration reform. A comprehensive bill has passed the Senate. It would provide a pathway to citizenship for those who are here illegally, and it would dramatically increase border security.
The House has not gone that far, and right now, we're going to go to the border for two views on this, on border security. In a few moments, we're going to head to Texas, but first, to Arizona, where the border patrol wants to add razor wire to the 20-foot-high steel post fence that runs right through the middle of the community of Nogales. Arturo Garino is the mayor there. He's with us now. And Mr. Mayor, it sounds like you do not like this idea of adding razor wire to the fence.
ARTURO GARINO: No, I oppose it 100 percent, and so does my city council. And I can honestly say that almost all the citizens in the city of Nogales feel the same way. That is not a very good message to send to Mexico, because actually, there is no crisis that we need to go another step.
I think the majority of the undocumented people that come across probably come through the deserts east and west of here, where there is no 20-foot wall. And the desert itself is a deterrent. You know, it's very dangerous. And we have 35,000 to sometimes 60,000 people coming across our port every day to shop in Nogales and Tucson and Phoenix. And we haven't lost that, even though there's a fence, because these people come across legally.
But we've lost that tourism of American citizens coming to the gateway to Mexico, Nogales, Sonora. If we put razor wire, we're still indicating that it is not a safe place to be.
HOBSON: But when people hear you say that, they're going to think, well, of course he wants to keep the border pretty free-flowing, because it's economically beneficial to Nogales. But what about the people who are coming in, into Nogales, and then leaving Nogales and coming to the rest of the United States illegally?
GARINO: Yes, I do not condone people coming through the desert. I do not condone people coming over the fence illegally. But you have to look at the times that I can remember, not many years ago, when our streets were full of tourists from the United States here. All that has dropped tremendously because of us showing the perception of not being a safe place.
And we are one of the safest communities along the border, because per capita, we probably have more law enforcement. What I want to project, I want to project that we do not need to show that force if the crisis isn't there. Let's not try to spend $46 billion in border security and militarize our borders, and then make us look economically not sound.
HOBSON: But you have said that crime is down because of the wall.
GARINO: Yes, and the crime is really down. And remember, now, a few years back, there were shows depicting war zones, border wars and all this. It was sensationalized so much. And that, actually, that's the key word there, sensationalized, because when I was a police officer and a deputy in the '80s, we had a lot more drugs and everything coming across, but nobody seemed to care.
HOBSON: Mr. Mayor, how long have you lived in Nogales?
GARINO: I lived all my life here. I'm 60 years old.
HOBSON: And how long has the border fence been there, at its current height?
GARINO: They started with the old landing mats right after 911, a few years after, and then this one, the new one is about two years old.
HOBSON: So before 9/11, it was just a short, little fence you could easily hop over?
GARINO: Yes. There was a chain-link fence in the downtown area, and then everything else was a five-strand barbed-wire fence.
HOBSON: And you think that all that buildup is unnecessary. It's doing more harm than good.
GARINO: For the economy, more harm, and I really don't think it stops anything. It just makes people feel good up in Washington.
HOBSON: Well, it's interesting, because, you know, for people that don't live anywhere near the border, what we hear from the rest of the country is a very different picture than the one you're painting right there on the border.
GARINO: Yeah, well, I know. You know, I've talked to a lot of people, and you have to be here. You have to see this. You have to see the effects of it. You know, now they're throwing a number of 12 million or so, or 11 to 12 million people here that are looking for citizenship. And both the Democrats and the Republicans are fighting to see who is going to take the lead on immigration reform.
But don't use immigration reform to affect the economies of the border region, because it - they only talk about Mexico. They don't talk about Canada. We trade with Mexico, I mean, billions of dollars, $26 billion through the state of Arizona in one year with commerce.
HOBSON: One more question, Mr. Mayor: I was looking at a satellite image of the border where you are, and the Mexican side is much more built up than the U.S. side. Why is that?
GARINO: Yes. Nogales, Sonora, let me tell you right now, they've already built 5,000 homes. And these people are here to work in the maquiladora industry, the manufacturing. There's 13 industrial parks in Nogales, Sonora, and 120 plants, all American plants. They estimate that within the next seven to 10 years, Nogales, Sonora, could have at least another 200,000 people living there.
GARINO: That's going to be very good for us. These people will shop in our city, in Nogales, Arizona, and Tucson and Phoenix. And Nogales is number one in produce. We're number one, Texas is number two and California is number three in produce. But we're the number one in manufacturing, El Paso is. And so is Tijuana.
So what we want to do is bring it back. In the '70s, we used to have the twin-plant program. There was a plant in Nogales, Arizona, and a plant in Nogales, Sonora, the same name. One would build the part, the other one would put it together, and we would get it shipped through our trade zone.
When everything started going to Mexico and then to China, because of low wages and low cost for manufacturing, we lost our twin plant in Nogales, Arizona. Well, now it's coming back, and that's very, very good for us.
HOBSON: Arturo Garino is the mayor of the border town of Nogales, Arizona. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.
GARINO: Well, thank you very much for having me.
HOBSON: And in a moment, we will go to El Paso, Texas, for a totally different take on the fence.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And meanwhile, of course, we're watching other news. There's a big election toady in Zimbabwe. There's trouble at the Canadian Tar Sands with oil spills. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED will cover it all. And we'll be back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're talking about border security and the push in Washington to beef it up, perhaps by adding 20,000 more agents and more fencing, as the Senate wants to do, or by directing Homeland Security to boost enforcement and catch anyone crossing the border illegally, as the House wants to do.
Southwest border sheriffs are on board with that plan. Joining us on the line is Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition. He's with us from El Paso. And Mr. Reay, describe the border fence where you are. How much fencing is there, and what's it like?
DON REAY: Well, the fencing in the El Paso area is - I would describe it as broken. Along the border in El Paso, the fence is approximately 20 feet high, and within the city confines. And it is a reinforced steel mesh attached to poles. As you move outside of the city, more into the rural areas, you have your - the fence has breaks in it. Of course, those are managed by other means, by the Border Patrol.
And in that area, then you will go into some natural barriers for which, of course, there is no fence. But there are large, open areas outside of the city. Within the city, it's a high fence.
HOBSON: Does anybody try to climb over it?
REAY: Oh yes. Yes. They'll try to climb over it. People will try to cut it. We haven't had as many cuttings in El Paso as they've had in some other areas, but some areas have actually taken a torch and, you know, cut, you know, fence where it can be pulled back and crawled through.
As you get outside of El Paso, the fence is no longer reinforced with the wire mesh to make it solid. There, it's primarily a series of steel beams that are together, and they're set at an angle into the concrete. And so you can actually see through those areas, but it'd be - you'd have to be a pretty small person to squeeze between them.
HOBSON: You'd also have to get past the Rio Grande River, right?
REAY: Well, yeah, but the Rio Grande River here is virtually nonexistent. Currently, we're in a terrible drought, and water is not being released at this time from the lakes in New Mexico, because they are critically low. And so, basically, through El Paso, the river is pretty dry right now.
HOBSON: So there are a lot of people who hear you describe that and say, OK, there are maybe holes in the fence, the river is drier than it usually is. But that's plenty of security for this threat of people coming here illegally. What do you say to them? Because you obviously disagree.
REAY: No, that isn't plenty of security, because that is only one facet of a very complex problem. You have to look at the - people will cross. Where there's a will, there's a way. People will cross illegally into the United States. And if they cross at other than a port of entry, then when they're encountered by law enforcement, frankly, you don't know what you're encountering.
You don't know if you have a person looking for work. You don't know if you have a person trying to visit a family. You don't know if you have a fugitive, a heavy criminal or somebody carrying drugs. You don't know what you've got until you encounter that person and make that law enforcement determination.
And yes, people are beating the border all the time. And the whole purpose of the fence was to divert that kind of traffic into more open areas, which would give the Border Patrol primarily a better response time to apprehend or at least detain, depending on what the situation is.
HOBSON: Well, what would you like Washington to do about this?
REAY: Get really serious about border security, and to frankly have the political will to do the job correctly and not give us lip service to the issue.
HOBSON: Well, is the Senate plan that would increase the fence and double the number of border agents the kind of thing you're looking for?
REAY: No, no. We did a poll with our sheriffs to see how they stood on this, because, you know, I work for 31 sheriffs along the border, and so, really, my opinion is a consensus of their opinions. Most of our sheriffs - and I won't say all of them, but most of our sheriffs feel that the addition of 19,000 border patrolmen is not the solution.
You have many attendant problems with that. First of all, where are they going to work? Are they going to be on the border, or are they going to be doing school programs and that kind of thing, which happens now? You also have the problem is that when you put that many border patrolmen into a small community, those border patrolmen have no place to live, because the infrastructure is not there to support them.
Ergo, they are allowed to travel, some of them, up to 100 miles to work every day. Well, when that happens, you don't have ownership in the community you're serving. And not through the fault of the hardworking border patrolmen on the line, but just because of the reality of the logistics, that doesn't serve the communities well.
HOBSON: What about, though, this argument that if you increase the size of the border fence and the amount of security, you put a wall up at the front door of America - or what is, for some, the front door of America - and it goes against the spirit of the country, which is a nation of immigrants?
REAY: You will find different opinions from different sheriffs on that subject. Sheriffs are extremely concerned about the fact that yes, some people have families living on both sides of the border. This slows down their access. Although if they go through the port of entry legally, it doesn't, other than the long waits at our lines at the ports of entry. We realize that's also a problem.
I know that one sheriff made the statement that the fence was an effective tool for him within the city of El Paso. However, he was philosophically against the fence because of this social side of the issue. And, you know, legitimately, we are a nation of immigrants. You know, I'm a descendant of immigrants. But frankly, they came here legally.
And, you know, but I would like to make one thing clear, Jeremy. We're talking a lot about immigration here, and that is part of the issue. But our sheriffs are not immigration officers. Our sheriffs frankly don't want to be immigration officers, because if our sheriffs became immigration officers, they would fill their jail in no time, and that cost would be borne by the citizens.
And this is a mandate that has been given to the federal government. You know, we have, again, differing views from our different sheriffs, but the majority of them will tell you that the federal government isn't doing a very good job in that regard.
HOBSON: Do you think that your message is getting out in Washington?
REAY: No. Limitedly, but, you know, we have the philosophy, when I was a kid growing up, there was a church song that I learned, and I won't sing it for you, because that would turn everything of and probably blow your equipment.
REAY: However, the words go: If you take the one next to you, and I take the next to me, in no time at all, we'll have them all. So win them one by one. And I think that's what we're trying to do, and I think that's what our sheriffs are trying to do when they go to Washington and when they talk to senators and congressmen.
HOBSON: Well, Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition, thank you so much for speaking with us.
REAY: It's my pleasure, Jeremy. Thank you.
HOBSON: So two very different views on this issue, Robin, and the thing that sticks out to me from the mayor of Nogales that we just heard from earlier was that the border fence is just something that makes them feel good up in Washington.
YOUNG: That was his opinion. What's yours? We'd love to hear from you at hereandnow.org, Facebook.com/hereandnowradio, especially if you live along the border with Mexico, as these two last guests did. Let us here from you.
Still ahead today, putting that tiff between Jay-Z and Harry Belafonte in historical context. But the latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.