Probably the most interesting thing I heard during the entire House debate on HB 11 for border security was that the $12 million-a-month DPS and National Guard surge last year primarily secured the border in ony two counties: Hidalgo and Starr. Together, they contain 121 miles of the Texas-Mexico border, less than 10 percent of the entire length of the state’s 1,254-mile boundary with Mexico.
These two counties may well serve as the international spigot for illegal immigration and drug smuggling, but that hardly seems to match the rhetoric of securing the border. In fact, several border area lawmakers took to the back microphone in the House to make certain the legislation was not going to taint the public view of where they live.
“A few of the concerns we have is the branding of the (Rio Grande) Valley. People are branding it as an area where there’s bloodshed and there’s fighting going along on the street. How does this bill help us not brand it in this manner?” asked Representative Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco.
“It highlights the fact that the Valley simply is the first line that the human traffickers, smugglers, transnational gangs, cartels cross into being in our state in bringing their challenges and problems across our state, and, quite frankly, our nation,” replied bill sponsor Dennis Bonnen. “Their focus is not the valley or the border. Their focus is the nation, and we just unfortunately are the front line.”
The public relations issue also was of concern to Representative Joe Pickett of El Paso, who wanted to know if Bonnen would help him get the word out that additional troopers and National Guard personnel were not needed in his county. Bonnen said he would.
The bill had four main components: Increased penalties for human trafficking, authorized wiretaps in prostitution cases, the hiring of 250 additional troopers by the Texas Department of Public Safety and establishment of a Texas Transnational Intelligence Center run by the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department and the McAllen Police Department. The House tentatively approved the HB 11 on a 131-12 vote.
While the human trafficking provisions specifically target people who make money by smuggling people for pecuniary gain, the smuggling has to be done in violation of federal law. On the one hand, attacking the smugglers seems like a good idea. There were 19 immigrants who died in the back of a truck in 2003, and 14 who died in a pickup truck crash in 2012. The U.S. Border Patrol earlier this month reported that immigrant deaths in the Lower Rio Grande Valley were up from the previous year. The bodies of 55 immigrants had been found since October, compared to 39 in the same period a year ago. The Border Patrol also rescued 164 people compared to 131 the previous year. Another 15 immigrants had drowned in the Rio Grande.
But the way the bill is worded, the task of hunting human smugglers also puts the state in the position of enforcing federal immigration laws, which Texas has no power to do. The law states that the human trafficking offenses involve someone who “encourages or induces an individual to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring or shielding that person from detection.” The smuggler would be arrested and charged under state law, but the people being trafficked would be detained for the federal immigration service. I find it difficult to not read that as the state enforcing federal immigration laws.
Valley lawmakers also expressed concern that the hiring of additional DPS troopers would result in the “poaching” of officers from border police departments. DPS currently is trying to fill 270 vacancies and as of a little over a week ago already had 338 applications from officers working for border law enforcement agencies. Bonnen said the state wants to be careful not to harm local law enforcement, but added, “There will be officers hired from local law enforcement agencies … The best trooper, I believe it was Sheriff (J.E. “Eddie”) Guerra of Hidalgo County said, ‘Is a trooper I trained.”
Bonnen said the goal of the new intelligence center will be to help law enforcement coordinate information on gang activity. He said one agency might be raiding a stash house at the same time as another agency and neither would know the two raids were actually connected and could result in enhanced penalties.
This is not meant to be a reflection on anyone currently serving in the departments that will control this new intelligence center, but let’s not forget that the former Hidalgo sheriff pleaded guilty last year to money laundering involving campaign contributions, and his drug interdiction squad was indicted in January 2013. Rolling Stone magazine recently covered their cases in a story entitled “America’s Dirtiest Cops: Cash, Cocaine and Corruption on the Texas Border.” The Starr County sheriff in 2009 received a five-year federal sentence for helping cartels smuggle drugs through his county.
I hope Bonnen realizes that the same information that might help different police departments coordinate their activities also can be used by corrupt police to warn cartel members how to avoid smuggling busts. With as much money as floats around the drug trade, there almost always are going to be officers who give in to temptation.
(Photo: HB 11 sponsor Dennis Bonnen leans into a crowd of legislators | By Bob Daemmrich)