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How Much Is Enough When It Comes To Spending On Border Security In Texas?

Leaders in Texas are convinced the federal government isn’t doing enough to secure the U.S.-Mexico Border. They have approved spending nearly $1 billion over the next two years to aid the effort. But money may not solve the problem.


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A Border Patrol bicycle unit in McAllen TX.
Courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection

A Border Patrol bicycle unit in McAllen TX.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement just completed a five-week operation against transnational criminal gangs. The operation netted 1,133 arrests around the country, including 112 across Greater Houston. The question of how to keep such gangs from operating in the U.S. is at the heart of the debate over security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The latest congressional hearing on border security took place just one day after the terrorist attacks in Brussels. (You can view the complete hearing below.) Much of the testimony dealt with the potential for travelers — from as far afield as Pakistan and Somalia — to slip into the United States from Mexico to stage such attacks here. But it also focused on a threat based much closer to home.

"It is well documented that criminal cartels control the border in the same way inmates control most prison facilities," says Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing U.S. Border Patrol agents. "The cartels are extremely well organized, pathologically violent, and have an entire infrastructure on both sides of the border."

By law, the federal government — specifically the Border Patrol — has jurisdiction over security on the U.S.–Mexico border. But the belief by many top level state officials that it's not doing enough has led Texas to take measures of its own.

"Every day, we deploy Texas State Troopers, Texas Rangers, and special agents from the Department of Public Safety from around the state down to the Rio Grande Valley, where right now is the epicenter of drug and human smuggling into the United States, " says Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. "And we'll continue to do so, as has been our direction, until the border is secure."

The Texas National Guard and state game wardens are also part of the effort. The director says all this is necessary, because the Border Patrol lacks the means to do the job alone.

"If properly resourced, they have the leadership and the type of people that can get the job done to secure the Texas-Mexico border, and that's important," McCraw says.

It's far from clear, though, that resources are the problem. The U.S. now spends roughly $19 billion a year on border security, an increase of more than 300 percent since 2002.

Doris Meissner led the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton. She's now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

"We are, as a country, committing the same amount of money to border enforcement, principally the southwest border, as we are to all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined," Meissner says.

To supplement the federal effort, Texas is set to spend roughly $800 million on border security in the current two-year budget cycle, which ends on August 31, 2017. That's nearly one-third of the budget for the Texas DPS. And resources that are devoted to watching the border aren't available for other DPS functions, like highway safety or emergency management.

"I think the focus on border security is a bit misguided," says Stephen Zamora, executive director of the Center for U.S. and Mexican Law at the University of Houston Law Center.

He says that strengthening the border is clearly important, but not nearly as important as strengthening the rule of law in Mexico itself.

"We could build the greatest wall ever built since the Great Wall of China," Zamora says. "And it still wouldn't deal with insecurity that we would have if Mexico itself is not secure and stable."

The U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on aid to Mexico over the past decade to help battle organized crime. Much of that funding has gone to purchase military-grade hardware. Far less has gone to fight corruption in the country's law enforcement and courts. Zamora says until the U.S. cuts the demand for illegal drugs north of the border, the money to pay for that corruption will continue to flow south.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to clarify that the federal government spends $19 billion on border security, not just the Border Patrol.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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