This is part one of a two-part series
EL PASO, Tex.—The terror attacks of Sept. 11 are widely blamed on the failure of American intelligence to detect and apprehend potential terrorists entering the country. Today, the language of fighting terrorism has replaced the language of immigration enforcement, border policy and even drug interdiction. The effects are visible all along the 2,100-mile border with Mexico, and obvious here in West Texas.
The Border Patrol, variously housed over 80 years in the Departments of Labor, Treasury, or Justice, now operates under Homeland Security. A Border Patrol spokesman in El Paso says, “Our primary objective now is preventing terrorists and instruments of terrorism from entering.”
Last May, President Bush sent 6,000 National Guard, many recently returned from Iraq or on their way there, to support the Border Patrol along the border in what he called Operation Jump Start. Today, soldiers in camouflage look for would-be border crossers from windowless camera rooms, or in armed skyboxes that rise on hydraulic legs.
“I was doing basically the same thing in Iraq, looking for suspicious activity,” said a 33-year-old Texas National Guard soldier back from Tikrit as he scanned multiple screens in a windowless room. “There they were penetrating the wall around our base. This is like they’re penetrating our home. We don’t want terrorists to come in.”
The post-9/11 shift from policing the border to considering it a frontline in the terror war has influenced local law enforcement. In late 2005, Gov. Rick Perry authorized Operation Linebacker, distributing $10 million to 16 border sheriff’s departments to improve public safety and “national security.” “Al-Qaeda leadership plans to use criminal alien smuggling organizations to bring terrorist operatives across the border into the U.S.,” said Perry’s security overview. Rick Glancey, spokesman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department, now says its job is the “same as the Border Patrol, preventing terrorism.”
In his downtown office, Sheriff Leo Samaniego looks like a courtly grandfather, tall, 70-ish, smiling, at ease with his reputation as master of one of the best-regarded departments in the country. Between January and June, his deputies detained over 800 persons, some with deep roots in local communities, and turned them over to the Border Patrol. For many it was an ominous use of Linebacker, jumping the firewall between local policing and federal law enforcement in the name of anti-terrorism. Rights groups say it undermines public safety because the tactics make locals fearful of approaching local law enforcement for any reason. Samaniego said he halted his “traffic stops” only temporarily, to “cool off” rights groups and citizens’ complaints. The fact is that 9/11 has “definitely” changed his job, the sheriff said. “I’d rather be accused of overstepping my authority than sitting on my butt and doing nothing while we’re in war.”
Department spokesman Glancey puts it this way: “Every day you have drugs coming in duffel bags. Today narcotics, tomorrow weapons of mass destruction. Since Sept. 11 we’ve seen the border is perfect for someone to take advantage of the United States. We will not let this happen on our watch, Mr. and Mrs. America, you can be sure of that.”
West Texas looks a lot like Iraq, making it ideal for training soldiers in desert warfare. Units have arrived to assist the Border Patrol before going to the Middle East. “You can bet it can be beneficial to them,” said Border Patrol spokesman Douglas Mosier. “They’re getting used to a desert environment you can’t get at a base in the East or the Midwest.” Troops bring advanced military technology. “Equipment such as that tried and tested in the Middle East can be beneficial in this kind of topography,” Mosier said. “If that technology is applicable and feasible (there is) no reason to think it won’t be considered for future use” here, on the border.
For Mosier, having soldiers on the border is not militarization, but “homeland security in support of a very real and vital mission.” He points out that soldiers in Operation Jump Start have no direct law enforcement duties. They are here to provide force protection, free up Border Patrol agents until more can be trained, and to be “more eyes and ears.”
How effective these efforts are in staunching the flow of undocumented immigrants, let alone illegal drugs, is less clear. Nearly half the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States entered legally and overstayed visas. Most illegal drugs enter in otherwise legitimate cargo and traffic. Meanwhile, the poor of Mexico and Central America continue to cross any way they can. “It’s like two tsunamis, one coming up from the south, and increased militarization coming from the north, set to clash at the border,” says University of Texas at El Paso political scientist and border researcher Tony Payan. “There is a need for a way to accommodate the flow.”
In a new study, “The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security,” Payan suggests that the focus on militarization and anti-terrorism puts not only crossers but those who live in the area, mostly Mexican Americans, at risk. What has changed toward undocumented workers since 9/11, as Payan puts it, is “the perception of intentionality,” that “this is not someone coming to take a job, but someone who will harm America.”
NAM Contributing Editor Mary Jo McConahay reports on the border for The Texas Observer.