A trip to Texas that began as a search for missing horses ended with a new perspective of why there’s no simple way to secure a large section of our southern border.
No. Simple. Way. At least not in the Lone Star State.
Make no mistake, the Border Patrol would love all the help it could get. Jason Owens made that clear to me.
“We have 170 miles of border with Mexico in the Laredo Sector alone,” explained the Rome, GA native, 43, who heads that sector for the Border Patrol. “Right now, we have zero border wall.”
And after hanging out with Jason and his fellow border agents, I can understand their frustration.
This was my first trip to the Southern Border. As a first-generation American whose parents are Canadian-born, I’ve had plenty of experience crossing the Northern Border to see relatives. But no one in Washington is talking about building a wall up there (although it might be worth it if the wall was tall enough to stop that dreaded Arctic Jet Stream from crossing over uninvited.)
No, all wall talk points south. Four of our states make up that 2000-mile border. The biggest, with 1254 miles, is Texas. And it’s their unique section of the Mexican border that makes a wall so much more troublesome there.
You can’t build a wall down the middle of the Rio Grande.
On the day we spent with Owens and the Border Patrol in Laredo, the river was high and moving fast. But agents say a smuggler in a boat can still get people across in a matter of seconds, hand them off to someone waiting in the trees on the Texas side and hustle them to a safe house nearby. From there, an immigrant here illegally can easily blend into the community while waiting for a ride north. In the two border cities we visited, portions of the American side looked no different than their sister city on the Mexican side, even down to the Spanish language-only signs above the shops and restaurants.
There’s no way to accurately track how many people illegally cross. There are no turnstiles for them or tickets collected. The government figures if more people are getting caught, more people are probably getting through. Makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time.
In 2000, as many as 1.6 million were caught on the Southwest border, which also includes California, Arizona and New Mexico. In Barack Obama’s last year in office, the number was 408,870. Last year, the number dropped to 303,916, but it’s starting to rise again. So President Trump is demanding Congress give him money to build a wall he promised during the campaign would be paid by Mexico. It’s clear Mexico won’t be doing that, at least not anytime soon. So that means any new wall will depend on the American taxpayer. And some unlucky American landowners.
Our hunt for horses originally took us to Eagle Pass, TX, a town of 50,000 that also borders the Rio Grande. It’s the first city in the United States to sue the federal government to stop the construction of a wall. Actually, better call it a fence. Fourteen-feet high. About two miles long. The city finally caved in 2010 and the $11 million dollar black metal structure is now supposed to serve as a deterrent for anyone crossing the river in that section.
So is it working?
The Eagle Pass mayor told me even eight years later, he still can’t stand to look at it because of the money he says was wasted, and because of what it did to two jewels of his city.
Since the Rio Grande periodically floods, the Eagle Pass fence had to be built several hundred yards inland. That meant cutting off the city’s popular golf course and Shelby Park, a huge complex for soccer. Those places — and the entire river — are now on the wrong side of the barrier in Eagle Pass. The city maintains several gates in the fence which typically stay open around the clock. Golfers can get to the course that way, but having wide open gates sort of defeats the whole purpose of a barrier, doesn’t it?
It’s a lesson for what the rest of Texas faces should a wall ever be built along the entire border. Much of it is privately-owned land which the government will have to buy — or seize — to have a suitable place to start construction. And again, some of that land — and the entire river — will be on the wrong side.
“You’d be giving it to Mexico saying okay, the river’s yours,” complained David Stoller, 60, as he drove me in his golf cart. David worked with U.S. Customs before retiring in Eagle Pass. He thinks a wall would work in the other states with no river border, but in his town David firmly believes their mini wall is a major waste of $11 million.
Bobby Martinez isn’t so sure. He runs the golf course and remembers the days before the fence when entire families of Mexicans would wander across the greens heading to a safe house somewhere in Eagle Pass. Now, he told me the biggest trouble he’s having are Mexican teenagers who cross the Rio Grande, grab one of his golf flags and scamper back over to laugh and claim victory.
Pranks. He says he can handle those.
Eagle Pass mayor Ramsey English Cantu told me the smarter move is to put more boots on the ground. But who’s filling those boots? Right now, the Border Patrol has about 20,000 agents, enough to place one every 1/10 of a mile along the entire border as long as no one ever sleeps, gets sick or wants a day off. They’re also having trouble keeping up with attrition, much less filling an additional 5500 slots requested by the President. The job is difficult, the screening process imperfect. Some new hires wound up actually working for the cartels.
Back in Laredo, we learned immigrants from Bangladesh are now flooding that sector. In 2016, they caught one. Since October, 2017 they’ve caught more than 200. Using Government Logic, that means more are likely getting through. No one has determined whether they’re seeking a better life or planning future mischief, but Laredo Border Patrol chief Owens admits he can’t figure out why they’re suddenly picking his city.
Could it be because they have no wall?
What’s the answer? I’m honestly not sure. After seeing the border up close, I am convinced of one thing, though. The answer won’t fit on a bumper sticker.