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Texas Lawmakers Criticize Border Surge For Moving Crime But Not Stopping It

Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Texas Tribune

The $800 million border security operation passed by state lawmakers has helped seal off parts of the state’s southern border. But the surge has also made the rest of the area more of a hotbed for illegal activity, the state’s top law enforcement officer told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The assessment by Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw came during a House Homeland Security and Public Safety meeting in Brownsville, where Democrats hammered away at the DPS chief and questioned whether the buildup is successful is if it’s not securing the entire 1,254-mile border.

In 2015 lawmakers approved money to fund 250 more DPS officers on the border and to flood the area with cameras and other detection equipment to help stop illicit activity.

The allocation came in response to an unprecedented surge of illegal immigration in Starr and Hidalgo counties, mainly by unaccompanied children or families from Central America. State lawmakers said the surge was necessary because the migration tied up U.S. Border Patrol agents and made the area less safe.

While those counties have seen less crime, gangs have moved their operations into other parts of the border where the DPS presence isn’t as great.

“So what that two-year operation did was it reduced the traffic of crime and drugs in two counties but it moved it to other counties?” asked state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D- Rio Grande City during the hearing, which was broadcasted via livestream.

“Yes, that’s correct. They displaced it elsewhere,” said McCraw who described a frustrating situation where cartels and smugglers play a border game of whack-a-mole with American law enforcement.

It means that nearby counties like Zapata and Webb to the west and Cameron to the east have seen a spike in crime, the director testified, adding that the far West Texas counties of Hudspeth and Brewster are “unsecure." DPS' “unsecure” designation means law enforcement has limited or no detection, interdiction or support capabilities.

“At one time, the Rio Grande Valley was the center of gravity for everything,” he said. “For the first time, we’ve seen the Laredo Sector is increasing and may go beyond the Rio Grande Valley in the number of drugs seized.”

Drug seizures were down in Starr and Hidalgo counties by more than 20 percent from 2014, while seizures in Webb and Cameron counties increased by more than 10 and 20 percent, respectively, according to 2015 data from the El Paso Intelligence Center that McCraw presented to lawmakers.

An irritated Guillen said he was skeptical of the operation if it is spreading crime around but not stopping it.

“All we’re doing is we’re moving [crime] from two counties over to the other 12 counties and that, I don’t think, is what is intended,” he said. “It’s a great effort, but unless you do the whole thing, you are not achieving what you think you’re achieving.”

Wednesday’s hearing came just weeks after the DPS announced it was going to ask lawmakers for an additional $300 million to sustain the operation and deploy hundreds more DPS officers.

State Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, said the DPS’s effort was going to be placed under greater scrutiny as lawmakers decided whether to fund that request when they return to Austin in January.

“The next step is going to be Cameron County and we’ll keep moving to Zapata and Webb and keep moving west,” he said. “It’s working exactly as we expected. We don’t just throw this strategy out based upon anything. This strategy was built on evidence and past experiences.”McCraw conceded the operation didn’t yet have a lasting, border-wide effect.

Nevarez didn’t doubt the DPS has a strategy, he said, but it’s whether it yields results that matters.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s the most well-crafted plan,” he said. “[But] it’s got to work. And not only does it have to work, it has to work within the certain parameters of what we can afford to spend.”

McCraw did get some support from Republicans on the committee who urged patience with DPS efforts. State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, said a step-by-step approach is the one that makes the most sense.

“I assume your plan is to secure and hold and then target the other areas. I think this is a logical step,” he told McCraw. “It’s the key to success and it shows it can be done, and I think it’s a matter of will.”

Julian Aguilar covered the 81st legislative session for the Rio Grande Guardian. Previously, he reported from the border for the Laredo Morning Times. A native of El Paso, he has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Texas and a master's degree in journalism from the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas.
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