On border security—and insecurity.
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Evan Smith: Does the prospect of no longer being mayor of Laredo make you happy or unhappy?
Betty Flores: Neither one. I knew there was a beginning and an end. I worked as fast as I could, as hard as I could, and now I move on. I was a Laredoan when I started, and I’m a Laredoan when I leave. That’s the most important thing.
ES: Given what’s going on along the border right now, it has to be true that of all the mayors of your city in recent history, you’ve had the toughest go of it.
BF: It’s almost like, Be careful what you wish for. We’ve always wanted people to pay attention to the border, but some of the attention we’ve received has obviously not come in a good way because of the violence in Nuevo Laredo. For the most part, it does not define who we are. In fact, in my daily life it’s a very minute part of any discussion—even when I’m with the mayor of Nuevo Laredo. He and I just got back from Yuma, Arizona, promoting a rail bridge project we’re working on with the governor of Tamaulipas. We were together from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, and I don’t think we ever once talked about the violence.
ES: That’s amazing, because people outside Laredo would imagine it’s the number one thing on your mind, that it’s all you talk about during the workday and that you’re hyperaware of it off-hours because you have to get home and you have to go out to eat and go shopping. The perception, at least, is that it’s a war zone environment out there.
BF: And that’s the wrong perception. [Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are] a combined community of approximately a million people. If you compare our community to any other of its size, you’ll see that the crime rate and violence are really not so out of whack. However many deaths we’ve had in total, it’s really not a lot of people in a population like this one. So we come and go and do our daily business—
ES: Not affected by it.
BF: Not affected by it. More than 30,000 people cross the bridges every day. Do they focus on the violence? Perhaps if they read the headlines, because it’s always on the front page. Perhaps if they’re going to go across the river from the U.S. side in the evening. We used to have trouble keeping our kids home because, obviously, the curfews for drinking in Nuevo Laredo were a lot more lenient. They’d sneak across. Now they’re not going across on their own beause they’re afraid. But does every family think about it when they leave the house? No. Does it affect our lives at every moment? No. We’re not consumed by it.
ES: So who or what is to blame then for the wrong perception? Is it the jackals in the media, who are overhyping what’s going on down there? Is it the political system?
BF: The problem is that we’re never in the news, and when we are, it’s only bad news. And so people start this frenzy of “Oh, my God. Oh, my God”—all these things are happening, and they’re happening to a police chief, and they’re happening to a journalist. You know, my police chief here is my best citizen. And so when you think about a police chief in Mexico being killed, you relate it to your own experience. You don’t think that maybe the police chief was involved in something he shouldn’t have been. You don’t talk about the journalist perhaps not being on the right side. You don’t talk about all those people who have been killed who were probably part of the problem.
ES: That’s a pretty serious allegation. The death of the police chief in Nuevo Laredo was a significant news event. The death of the editor from El Mañana was pretty serious. Are you saying that we’re not getting complete information about what went on in those two cases?
BF: I believe that you’re not. And I believe that because people are afraid to talk, I don’t think you’ll ever get the right information. This is another country—sometimes we forget. On the U.S. side, we document, we investigate, we incarcerate. We have a system. Mexico probably has better laws on the books than we do, but their problem is law enforcement. It’s pretty much not there. Mexico has lived with lax law enforcement because there was no violent crime. It was no big deal. But now they’ve come to the very hard reality that you do need to punish your criminals and you do need to enforce your laws because otherwise you will have lawlessness.
ES: It’s a little late to start now.
BF: They’ve sent in the federales; they’ve sent in the army; they’ve sent in all these people who are not really trained—or perhaps there aren’t enough of them. But they’re too late. The bad guys are well equipped. They’re mean and nasty.
ES: Which is why, as you say, people are afraid to speak up. Why aren’t you afraid to speak up? Why are you not afraid for your own safety?
BF: Because I live in the United States of America. Because Laredo has a good system of law enforcement. Because my police officers understand that in order to keep our community safe, we have to work a little harder. Because the bad guys are not all living in Nuevo Laredo. They’re everywhere. They’re everywhere in these United States, and they’re everywhere in Mexico. The drug business, as you know, has been around for a while. For us on the border, the drug dealer was our first terrorist.
ES: Long before 9/11.
BF: And we didn’t do anything about it. We kept postponing intervention programs; we kept postponing prevention programs. We’d say, “You know, that was a cutesy program. Let’s do away with it. We don’t have the funding.” What has happened? We’ve continued to feed this need for drugs. And, you know, the Mexicans tell me, “You stop buying, we’ll stop selling.”
ES: It’s simple economics, isn’t it? Cut off the demand and you’ll cut off the supply.
BF: But we’re not focusing at all on that. The DEA’s funding was cut a long time ago. For many years this country has pretty much turned its back on the war on drugs. It was a war we were never going to win, but it was a war we needed to be in. And we have to continue to be in it, because now we have situations like the one in Nuevo Laredo.
ES: Are we worse off than we were ten years ago?
BF: On the border we are. In the late seventies and early eighties in Laredo, this sort of thing was handled very efficiently. We got rid of the bad people and it was over. These are not the same times. More than five years ago I saw that things were changing for the worse in Nuevo Laredo. And so I started talking to the Mexican governments, from the mayors on up, about addressing these issues. The drug dealers were going to take hold of these communities, and we needed to do something about it. Absolutely nothing was done. Everyone kept saying, “There’s no money, there’s no money, there’s no money, and there’s no money.”
ES: It’s interesting that you bring up five years, because a little less than five years ago was September 11, when we suddenly began thinking about homeland security, including border security. Theoretically, your calls for increased action on border issues should have coincided with this increased activity. There should have been more money and more manpower available.
For years we’ve been advocating for the Border Patrol and Customs to get the funding they needed. They have X-ray machines because we helped get them. We, the border communities, said, “You need to have better equipment.” But this was before September 11. Before September 11 the federal government didn’t understand the need for border security. After September 11 they understood it, but they didn’t do anything about it quickly enough. So we had to step up to the plate. Right after September 11, my police and fire budgets went up. We raised property taxes by 2 cents so that we could put more money into police and fire protection.
ES: How did your community react to the tax increase?
BF: They said, “Absolutely.” They said, “Yes.” Nobody complained.
ES: Let’s talk about immigration, which is so much in the news right now. Some people see it as an economic issue. Other people see it as a security issue. How do Laredoans see it?
BF: We don’t think immigration is a security issue. We’ve had immigration issues in Laredo in the past, and we’ve learned how to work through them. We already have a guest-worker program. I wish people would come and see how we’ve handled it. It’s very humane. People who cross over can see their country, and they want to go back to their families. Legal or illegal, they want to go home every opportunity that they can. Some do it every day, some do it every week, some do it every month. But they do it on their own. Nobody forces them, nobody stops them, nobody questions them. And that’s the kind of immigration bill that we should be looking at. We should be letting people come to work here and go home when they want to.
ES: How do we prevent terrorists from sneaking into the country through Laredo?
BF: We need the cooperation of Mexico! They have to better protect their own borders. Why do we have to wait for someone to come to the northern border of Mexico before we can stop them?
ES: What about the economic argument that’s been made—that illegals are taking jobs that would otherwise be filled by Americans?
BF: I can tell you from my own personal experience that the few times it has been hard for Mexicans to cross over because of September 11—because of long lines, because of new procedures, because of an immigration policy change, because the Border Patrol is stopping buses—there have been no Americans jumping up and saying, “Oh, the Mexicans aren’t coming? I’ll do the job for you.”
ES: Those jobs are going unfilled?
BF: They’re unfilled! So that’s a complete misconception in my opinion. The other thing is that people say, “How can you give these people amnesty when they’re breaking the law?” They don’t come to the United States with the intention of breaking any laws! In fact, they’re probably the most law-abiding residents that we have. What they come here to do is simply to find a better life, to do a job nobody else will do. If there was no job opportunity here, they wouldn’t be coming. There are villages in Mexico that only have women and children because the fathers are somewhere else, trying to make a living. If I were [Mexican president] Vicente Fox, I’d be damn worried about a workforce drain.
ES: What about the argument that the people who cross the border illegally end up being a drain on our health care system, on our education system? Do you see a noticeable impact on the emergency rooms and the public schools in Laredo?
BF: We do. But it has pretty much become a way of life for us. If we require everybody, including the illegals, including the people who we say are causing this drain on our system, to pay something, whatever they can afford, then they add into the system eventually. A lot of these people, because of where they’re working and whom they’re working for, are paying into Social Security but are getting no benefits and will never get benefits.
ES: Because they’re not legal?
BF: Because they’re not legal. What happens when all of that goes away? What happens to our Social Security system?
ES: You told me previously that a high percentage of citizens of Laredo are school-age.
BF: Thirty-six percent. The reason Laredo is adding schools all the time is because we also have a lot of children whose families have come across the river. Those children are American citizens; their mothers paid to have them in a U.S. hospital. We have cultivated a culture of “border residence” in which people live on either side and have dual citizenships. There’s Mexico, there’s the United States, and there’s the border. The border has found a way to handle it. Is it a drain on our health care services? Yes, a little bit. But we’ve found a way to use federal funds and state funds to help the American citizens, and then the American citizens pay into a pot that’s used to help anybody else who may not qualify. Of course, we do not ask for citizenship. We provide a service, because disease knows no borders.
ES: You said that we hear only the bad news about Laredo. Tell me the good news. What are we not hearing?
BF: What you’re not hearing is that we’re carrying the NAFTA burden. We’re helping to provide jobs for people deep into the heartland of the United States by everything that we’ve done to improve the infrastructure in our community, including building our bridges. One of the proudest moments in my life was when we started construction of our World Trade Bridge. It’s one of the few bridges for commercial traffic only in the United States, and it has been a success like no other success.
Also, Laredo and other communities along the border have a large number of people living in poverty. Government can only help to a certain degree. What can we do that’s long-term and sustainable? Facilitate jobs and job training. So that’s what we’ve done. We now have a four-year university [Texas A&M International]. We kept telling our kids to stay in school and go to college, but they didn’t understand what that looked like. Now they can look at it, they can visit it, they can imagine it. It’s had a real effect, and it will have more of an effect as we go on.
We also started looking for businesses that would give us value-added jobs. We said, “You bring value-added jobs to our community, we’ll give you tax incentives for five years.” That’s how Convergys, a call center, came to Laredo. I think they’re almost up to one thousand employees. They’re one of the biggest employers in the city. They pay well above the minimum wage. They have benefits for their full-time employees. They reimburse for college tuition. They have flexible work schedules. Those are the kinds of jobs that we went after. From the time I took office, our unemployment rate has gone from double digits to single digits—at or below the state average!
ES: Let me ask you, finally, about changing demographics and the changing culture of Texas. We’re now a minority-majority state and will soon be majority Hispanic. This must be a major issue for a city like Laredo.
BF: Well, we’re already 97 percent Hispanic, and we have been for a very long time.
ES: You can’t get much more Hispanic.
BF: And those people who don’t speak Spanish want to [learn the language]. In Laredo it’s a way of life. Do we accept everybody else? Of course. We don’t look at color, we don’t look at religion, we don’t look at economic means. Laredo is a real laid-back, accept-everybody kind of place. One of the most unique things about the city is that I can go to any restaurant and see the president of the bank or the guy from the country club and the neighborhood people all together, all sharing conversation, because they all know each other.
ES: That’s the nature of the community.
BF: It’s very intimate. You know, I have family in California. They deal with Hispanic issues there in a very different way. My cousins in California are probably lighter-skinned than you, with clearer eyes and blonder hair, but they feel like they need to fight for their Hispanic rights every day. And I feel that’s so strange, because in Laredo we don’t do that, and I really don’t feel that in Texas as much. My brother, who lives in New Braunfels, is integrated into his community very well. It’s just a matter of getting to know each other and what we’re all about. At the end of the day, we’re all the same. We really are. We’re all immigrants.