U.S. Border Patrol agents at the scene of a planned “crowd control” exercise that was to be conducted on Election Day have told the media that it was postponing the event to an unspecified day. They said that the agency would issue a statement regarding the postponement later Tuesday. The move came amid widespread criticism from members of Congress and civil rights advocates that such an exercise, within half a mile of a polling place, could have a chilling effect on some El Paso voters going to the polls.
The planned exercise, to be held in the hometown of Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Beto O’Rourke also called into question how far the Trump administration would go to affect the outcome of today’s election.
Shortly before the decision to postpone was announced, Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, the state’s Republican chief elections administrator, said he was not concerned about electoral disruptions in El Paso following a conversation Tuesday morning with Hector Mancha, the director of field operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That agency oversees the U.S. Border Patrol, which announced on Monday that it will be conducting an Election Day crowd control exercise within half a mile of at least one polling location in El Paso.
“After speaking with Hector Mancha I’m convinced the exercises aren’t getting in the way of Texans going to the polls,” Pablos, who has lived in El Paso, told Texas Monthly. Moments later, the agency announced the postponement of the exercise.
The move by Border Patrol had been decried by several members of the Texas congressional delegation, the U.S. Border Patrol announced Monday that it would be conducting an Election Day crowd control exercise in El Paso, the hometown of Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Beto O’Rourke.
The press release described the exercise as a “mobile field force demonstration” and invited the media to the event, which begins at 10 a.m. El Paso time.
“The El Paso Sector U. S. Border Patrol will be conducting a crowd control exercise at the railroad crossing west of the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry on Tuesday, November 6, 2018,” the agency said in a news release. “The exercise will include participants and assets from the United States Border Patrol.”
“Our preparations are ongoing. There is no link to the election date,” said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Roger Maier. He provided a link to CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan’s October 29 statement about the agency’s preparations for the migrant caravan from Central America.
The exercise was to take place next to the Chihuahuita neighborhood, a cluster of about one hundred or so homes along the U.S.-Mexico border that is almost exclusively Hispanic. The exercise was planned to have occured within half a mile from at least one designated polling station.
O’Rourke, informed of the exercise during a news conference before his final campaign rally in his hometown of El Paso Monday night, expressed disappointment.
“No walls, no CBP exercises (are) going to keep us from honoring our laws, our commitments. Why this is happening now, why the president is stirring these issues up at this moment with 24 hours before we decide this election, I’ll leave that to you to conclude,” he said. O’Rourke is challenging Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in Tuesday’s election.
O’Rourke has been critical of President Trump’s recent deployment of U.S. armed forces to the border. “This is another attempt to stir paranoia and fear and anxiety, instead of really meeting the challenge, which is a humanitarian crisis in the northern triangle of Central America,” O’Rourke said late last month.
By contrast, Cruz has welcomed news of the deployment and criticized his opponent for being soft on immigration. “He is waiting on the Rio Grande with welcome baskets and foot massages,” Cruz said of O’Rourke recently. Cruz has also consistently pointed out that he has received the endorsement of the national U.S. Border Patrol Union.
The news on Monday drew immediate criticism from several member of Congress as well as the Texas head of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It’s appalling that they would do something like that,” said U.S. Representative Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, another border community. “This is more of a campaign dog-and-pony show coming from the administration that is trying to incite its base.” A similar training exercise was held Monday in the town of Hidalgo, next to McAllen and adjacent to the U.S.-Mexican border.
U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, vice-chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said: “I’m at a loss to understand why they would do that on Election Day. Without hearing the justification for it, I don’t know why you would do it on Election Day anywhere in Texas. It seems very strange.”
U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, another border community, said: “At best, it’s a bad decision to have this at that particular area on Election Day. Couldn’t they wait until the day after the election? I’m not going to question the motives, but I am going to question the timing.”
State Representative Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, the vice-chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House, said: “This administration continues to use immigration policy for political purposes. The made-for-media ‘crowd control’ drill, conducted on Election Day, is a cynical effort to suppress the Latino vote in a region seeing record turnout. We demand the administration immediately cancel the drill.”
Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas, harshly criticized the planned exercise. “The location, next to a totally Hispanic neighborhood, is suspicious. The timing of this—Election Day—is suspicious. This administration, and by extension the [Governor Greg] Abbott administration, have done quite enough to intimidate voters without staging military rehearsals on the day our nation exercises our most important democratic obligation: voting. Instead of practicing to handle nonexistent crowds, the Border Patrol could practice something useful and timely: how to properly interview and process refugee asylum seekers,” Burke said.
The postponement only drew additional criticism from the ACLU, which tweeted this:
.@CBP just cancelled these exercises.
It shouldn't have taken outrage from us, congressmen, and the community for them to recognize that this would cause serious problems on #ElectionDay. https://t.co/1rswu89Fbx
— ACLU of Texas (@ACLUTx) November 6, 2018
El Paso CPB officials have visibly increased activity in recent days around the Paso del Norte Bridge, the port of entry in downtown El Paso, as the number of families arriving from Central America to seek asylum has grown, and President Trump has said a caravan of migrants currently hundreds of miles away in Mexico threatens an “invasion” of the United States. CBP officers now routinely carry semiautomatic rifles on the bridge rather than just sidearms. Officers closed the bridge on October 29 as part of an exercise to prepare for the possible arrival of the caravan.