Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Changing "Paradigm of Border Security" in Texas

(Part of a series on border security in Texas and Austin's outsourcing of border security operations.)

What DPS director Steve McCraw calls the Texas “paradigm of border security” began coalescing in 2005, as Governor Perry was preparing his election campaign and as the national immigration debate was heating up.

 Power Point by DPS/Border Security Operations Center

With McCraw as his homeland security chief, having been appointed in August 2004, Perry made border security a defining issue of his political campaigning and of his revamped homeland security strategy.

Perry and McCraw have assumed full ownership of an aggressive border security response. But they were hopping on a border security bandwagon that was already picking up speed in Texas and elsewhere.

In Congress the House Immigration Reform Caucus, led by Tom Tancredo (R-Col.) launched preemptive strikes against the proposals for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) that started surfacing in the House and Senate. 

Although the hard-line anti-immigrant measures were mostly defeated, the bills did succeed in shifting the focus of immigration reform from issues of legalization and temporary work programs to the “enforcement-first” and “border -security first” policy frameworks strategically advocated by immigration restrictionists.

Moving along a parallel and sometimes intersecting path, the Bush administration in 2005 let loose its own border security zeitgeist under the leadership of DHS Secretary Chertoff who promised that his Secure Border Initiative would gain “operational control of both the northern and southern borders within five years.”

Recognizing that border security was opening up billions of dollars in new funding for border projects, border politicians and border sheriffs began calling in 2005 for new border security funding streams for local law enforcement along the border. The Department of Homeland Security had already opened up a font of funding for overtime and equipment to border sheriffs and police through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Called together by Sheriff Sigi Gonzalez of Zapata County in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition formed in May 2005.

In the public statements and testimony to Congress, coalition leaders, notably Gonzalez and Sheriff West, have consistently stressed the threat of terrorists entering the United States through what they say is the unprotected border. 

Representing the newly formed southwestern coalition, Gonzalez in a July 2006 congressional testimony to the international terrorism subcommittee of the House Committee on International Relations said: 

“We continue to believe that terrorists have expressed an interest and a desire to exploit the existing vulnerabilities in our border security to enter or attack the United States.”

But illegal immigrants were also an expressed concern for Gonzalez and West. That same month they both were featured at a Capitol Hill press conference organized by a newly formed group of Hispanics called "You Don’t Speak for Me!,' which was formed by the restrictionist institute Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). The conference, joined by members of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, had this central message: “Secure our borders and enforce our immigration laws.”

The Texas sheriffs see the frontline as a scrimmage line where the defensive line is weak and full of gaps. Rather than relying totally on the Border Patrol’s frontline, the sheriffs have since 2005 mounted their own border defense through Operation Linebacker as a kind of secondary line of defense. The idea was that if a terrorist, criminal alien, drug smuggler, or any illegal border crosser makes it through the Border Patrol, the deputy linebackers are there to make the tackle.

Yet many border sheriffs, while touting the success of their Operation Linebacker patrols, describe their departments as the first not second line of defense against criminal intrusions – a posture underscored by the anti-Washington pronouncements of Governor Perry. 

Closely following the development of the sheriff’s own storyline is the evolution of congressional border security politicking, spearheaded by Texas congressional members. Here the story starts in the introduction by Cong. John Culberson (D-Tex.) of the Border Law Enforcement Act of 2005.

The bill, sponsored mainly by Republicans but also by a few border Democrats (notably Cong. Silvestre Reyes of El Paso and Cong. Henry Cuellar of South Texas (McAllen and Laredo), was the specter of “lawlessness in border areas.”

Although unsuccessful, the bill did provide the talking points that currently shape much of the border security debate and funding, namely that “federal officials have been incapable of preventing “criminals, terrorists, and foreign nations who have entered the United States illegally from engaging in criminal activity,” that the border’s “local and state law enforcement officials are being overwhelmed by growing lawlessness,” and that “state and local law enforcement count on the “residual full sovereignty of the States to protect the lives, safety, and property within their jurisdiction.”

Explaining the earmarks, Cong. Culberson says: “America needs boots on the ground to protect our Southern border from armed and dangerous criminals, violent gang members, drug smugglers and potential terrorists.”

Evolving Threat Assessments

A vast array of intelligence centers, fusion centers, crime-mapping, data exchanges, unified commands, and border security centers have been created in Texas since 2005 – none of which were envisioned the governor’s first Homeland Security Strategy Plan.  

Over the past five years, intelligence and border security operations – initiated by the state and largely funded by Washington -- have become central to homeland security planning in Texas. A review of the governor’s three homeland strategy plans – 2004, 2005-2010, 2010-2015 – also reveals major changes in how the governor and his homeland security office assess threats to homeland security in Texas.

The change that stands out in this evolution of the state’s homeland security strategy and its threat assessments is the core focus on border security, typified by the statement in the 2010-2015 strategy that “there can be no homeland security without border security.” There are 24 more references to the border in the 2010 statement than in the 2005 strategy.

Also noteworthy is the evolution away from a central focus on foreign terrorism to a totally new focus on Mexico-based threats. In the first two strategy statements, there are no references, for example, to Mexican drug cartels or transnational gangs. In the most recent statement, transnational gangs and drug cartels are mentioned, respectively, 13 and 24 times.

It was as if the drug cartels and transnational gangs mentioned in the 2010 strategy statement didn’t previously exist and only recently appeared in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. It was as if the drug trafficking flows from Mexico and farther south in Latin America had only recently sprung up, and as if drug smuggling across the Texas border was a new phenomenon, constituting an entirely new challenge for border control and homeland security.

The evolving assessment by the governor and his homeland security chief of the threats to homeland and border security in Texas now also links drug smuggling and Mexican drug cartels to political terrorism – effectively raising the threat level, but failing to offer any supporting evidence.

The most recent Texas homeland security strategy plan, a document prepared with grants from DHS, states, for example, that “there are numerous reports that Hezbollah [Lebanese Shiite political organization and militia] has a growing relationship with Mexican cartels and uses drug and human smuggling routes into and through Texas to facilitate the full range of its activities.”
The reports are not referenced, and the “full range” of Hezbollah terrorist operations in the United States is left undefined.  

Similarly, in concluding the new section on the threats of drug cartels, the 2010 strategy statement states:
“With the convergence of criminal enterprises and terrorist organizations, Mexican cartels represent an increasingly dangerous threat to United States and Texas security.”
If this convergence is indeed true, then raising the level of alarm about border security, as Perry and McCraw have been doing over the past five years, would be justified.  Yet they offer only assertions, like those in this strategy statement, rather than credible evidence or even plausible scenarios of this “convergence” between drug smuggling and Islamist terrorists.

Image from state's TxMap border crime mapping project, outsourced to ALIS.

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