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In Texas Borderland, Security Is No Simple Goal


The first of 1,000 Texas National Guardsmen begin arriving on the Texas-Mexico border this month. Governor Rick Perry deployed the troops after children from Central America started crossing the border in record numbers earlier this summer. Governor Perry says this state should not have to do Washington's job.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Secure this border, Mr. President. Finally address this issue and secure this border.

BLOCK: NPR's John Burnett examines what it means to secure the border.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: As it happened, a day after Rick Perry announced he was sending troops to the border last month, there was a fearsome gun battle in the Rio Grande Valley.

JOAQUIN CIBRIAN: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: This is a recording uploaded to social media that a tattooed gangster, named Joaquin Cibrian, made of himself while he was shooting at the army of police that had converged on the house in which he was barricaded. Cibrian wounded two policemen before they killed him. The sensational shootout - widely covered in Valley media - is a good example of the puzzle of what border security means. To some officials, like Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas, the incident is proof the borderlands here at the tropical tip of Texas are out of control.

MAYOR NORBERTO SALINAS: You know, you see things happening like the shooting that we had. Two police officers got shot. You know, having the National Guard around is not a bad idea. And they're going to be some help to the border patrolmans.

BURNETT: While the barricaded shooter claimed in an Internet video that he worked for the Gulf Cartel in Mexico, he belonged to a Texas prison gang. He was a U.S. citizen. It could be argued he was a police problem not a border security problem. Which is why Sergeant Rolando Garcia, head of special investigations with the San Juan Police Department, says the shootout proves what the Valley needs is more police officers.

ROLANDO GARCIA: This is something that we're starting to see more and more. Agencies across the Valley are having to deal with it, whether it be through chases with shootings, kidnappings, extortion - whatever. It's here. It's been here for a while. Basically, we need as much help as we can.

BURNETT: Texas is currently spending more than a million dollars a month on state troopers to boost law enforcement on the border. The National Guard are supposed to take over some administrative duties and free up border patrol agents to get back on the river. And though the reservists have no arrest powers, they're also supposed to act as a deterrent to illegal crossers. A local sheriff called them scarecrows. Ramon Garcia is county judge of Hidalgo County, which has 93 miles of the Rio Grande.

RAMON GARCIA: Do we welcome trained law enforcement personnel to be lined up along our border? I would say, definitely, yes. Do we feel the same way about National Guardsmen? No. That sends a whole different message. And it's not effective because they're not properly trained.

BURNETT: Judge Garcia and other local officials point out that the Rio Grande Valley, which is a single metro area of nearly 2 million people, has a low violent crime rate, but that's not the perception. The University of Texas Pan American surveyed people in the Valley last Spring, who responded that they feel less safe today than they did five years ago. Jessica Lavariega Monforti is a political scientist there.

JESSICA LAVARIEGA MONFORTI: We have this decision maker who's not on the border sending troops down here. And what we're seeing is, I think more and more, the perception that we all need to be scared about something.

BURNETT: The arrival of the Texas National Guard is supposed be a short-term measure to improve border security. Immigration hawks want permanent solutions. Congress routinely calls for doubling or even tripling the border force, even though the patrol has already doubled in size in the last 10 years. David Pagan is a Texas-based consultant with Command Consulting Group. He was advisor to the commissioner of Customs and Border Enforcement when the agency doubled the last time. And he remembers how hard it was to recruit 6,000 qualified new agents.

DAVID PAGAN: So just finding, you know, people who are interested, who are physically able, who can pass polygraph, can make it through the academy and then who actually do want to go sit in that idling Tahoe out in the West desert is a lot harder than I think people realize.

BURNETT: Securing the border is a lot harder than people realize, too. The western border is mostly a long, straight line on the map. Texas has 1,254 miles of twisting, turning river, much of it obscured by thick vegetation. The U.S. Border Patrol did not respond to an interview request. Instead of putting more and more boots on the ground, Chris Cabrera, with the Border Patrol Union, says it's better to be smarter than bigger. Use more intel and rapid reaction. Let agents work 10-hour shifts instead of the 8 hours they're restricted to.

CHRIS CABRERA: But I don't think that doubling or tripling the patrol is the answer. I think working with what you have, freeing up the resources you have, getting out in front of the problem as opposed to trying to chase it from behind.

BURNETT: When people away from the border say just secure the border, people who live near the river cautioned there are no easy solutions. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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