Holding Steady in West Texas

By John Wahala on March 28, 2014

Earlier this month, a group of us convened in El Paso for the Center for Immigration Studies' fourth annual border tour. On previous trips we followed the southwest boundary from east of Douglas, Arizona, to the Imperial Valley of California and traveled south along the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, to Brownsville. This year we covered 1,100 miles, heading briefly into New Mexico before traveling through west Texas down the Rio Grande, into Big Bend National Park, and as far south as Terlingua.


An imposing cliff along the border


The region is known as the Chihuahuan Desert. With its mountain ranges and vegetation, it resembles parts of Arizona more than the Rio Grande Valley just to the south. Averaging several thousand feet in elevation, it is said to be the most biologically diverse desert in the world. Its stunning landscapes have been the backdrop for Hollywood movies and the drive into Big Bend has been rated one of the most scenic in North America. West Texas provides a stark geographical contrast to other areas of the border.

Even for those who study immigration, it is easy to see the southwest border as an abstraction, a line that can be maintained by simply erecting a fence from the Pacific to the Gulf. But the border runs along sprawling plains, forbidding desert, vast wilderness, and impassable peaks. Each region has features that pose unique physical obstacles to defending the border. They are also deterrents to illegal crossings. Some areas have never had a significant number of illegal aliens because they are so treacherous and remote. The Big Bend area is one of those places. There cliffs form imposing border walls along parts of the Rio Grande and desolate fields of creosote extend for hundreds of miles.


A dry Rio Grande


Illegal traffic did not seem disruptive in west Texas like it was during last year's tour in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, where groups were crossing day and night and residents showed a sense of desperation. Official statistics affirm this impression. Apprehensions in the Border Patrol's Big Bend Sector totaled just 2 percent of those in the Rio Grande Valley last year. In addition to the difficult terrain, west Texas has very little development along the border, unlike parts of the state farther south. If this were to change it would increase the flow of illegal crossings. We were assured that the planned expansion of the international bridge at Ojinaga, for example, would be a boon to Mexican smugglers.

But even in the big city of El Paso things appear more stable. We toured the city with a retired Border Patrol sector chief who cautiously acknowledged the progress that has been made. Once beset by the highest level of illegal traffic in the country, things began to change in the early 1990s with Operation Hold the Line, the federal initiative that constructed fencing and positioned a majority of the agents right on the border. The initiative was credited with an immediate 72 percent decline in apprehensions and became a model for future enforcement actions. In 2006, Congress extended the fencing in El Paso and other parts of the border, which is just now being completed after various legal and legislative challenges.

In Chihuahuita, a small El Paso neighborhood in a crook of the Rio Grande, longtime residents told us that the fencing stopped a continuous flow of people and drugs across the border. It brought calm to an enclave where gun shots from Juarez were often heard as the drug wars raged. The residents have long since stopped going into Mexico due to the violence and do not view the fencing as an impediment. Their only criticism is that its perforated construction produces a high-pitched screech when the wind blows down from the mountains, as it often does. Illegal aliens still climb over the fencing, but in smaller numbers and with less success. Highway robberies, which we were told were fairly common to the west of town, have also ceased.


View of El Paso


El Paso is now one of the safest big cities in America and is a striking contrast to what transpired just across the river. Mexican drug violence has taken the lives of tens of thousands in the last decade. Some say that more than 100,000 people have been killed. Cartels shock and intimidate their rivals with escalating and dehumanizing acts of brutality. Mass executions, torture, beheadings, and even cannibalism have all been documented. The nature and extent of the violence is difficult to comprehend. The cartels have threatened every single Mexican institution.

A few years ago, Juarez became embroiled in a territorial dispute between two rival drug gangs that made it the world's deadliest city. The gangs infiltrated local law enforcement agencies, leaving residents with nowhere to turn. In an attempt to restore order, then-President Felipe Calderon brought in the military and enacted martial law. But even that draconian measure was unsuccessful. It was not until one of the gangs prevailed in the struggle that the violence began to wane.

Observers are somewhat surprised that the chaos has not spread across the border. They assume it is a business decision by the cartels, who do not want to roil the anger of the United States and jeopardize their markets. But that is not a concern in Mexico, where endemic corruption has long since weakened the state, creating constant uncertainty along the border. This uncertainty makes border security all the more critical. In our four trips to the southwest we have met with numerous residents, officials, and experts on the immigration issue. None of them have any reason to believe that things will ever change in Mexico.

Unfortunately things are changing here. Another theme on these trips has been the increasing politicization of immigration enforcement. Border residents have expressed their frustration with politicians in Washington, who for years have been pushing amnesty while creating restrictions that limit the Border Patrol's effectiveness. A besieged rancher in Arizona once told us that Sen. John McCain tried to help until he told him he could no longer do so because he was running for president. Last year, a rancher who spent years in the Border Patrol, said he fears being prosecuted by the federal government for simply trying to stop illicit activity more than he fears being harmed by drug runners or terrorists.

This year a high-ranking Border Patrol chief told us he retired because Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency that absorbed the Border Patrol in 2003, is too political. All of the decisions are being made by operatives in Washington and those in charge of the sectors are rarely allowed to even address the media. On a personal note, the Center for Immigration Studies has never been granted an official meeting with the Border Patrol on these trips despite repeated requests, something that used to be done routinely for almost any group that would ask. But the denials have not limited our education because we have arranged time with officials from the union that represents Border Patrol agents as well as with retired officers; they have given us far more information than the preapproved script would have.

The increased politicization is troubling, especially considering that the Obama administration has already dishonestly inflated deportation numbers, circumvented Congress to effectively pardon millions of illegal aliens, and sued states that have tried to enforce federal law. Despite the relative calm in west Texas, there is no assurance that immigration law will be faithfully enforced. And that is not a healthy situation given the volatile dynamic on the southwest border that requires continuous and specialized attention.