March 31, 2011

There is a storm brewing along our border with Mexico, and our nation is relegating responsibility for quelling that storm to some of our poorest communities. In a visit to El Paso last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed that there has been no “spillover” violence from Mexico into the United States. Regardless of the veracity, her point is irrelevant.

It is not spillover violence but spillover effects of hostilities in Mexico that pose the real threat to the United States.

Spillover effects are the direct results of Mexican violence that influence U.S. citizens living in communities along the border. For example, Mexican gangs fighting to control territory around the frontier village of El Porvenir, in Chihuahua, have threatened for almost a year to kill its residents. To escape the violence, nearly the entire village eventually relocated to Texas border communities — without, of course, being screened or processed. The results include schoolchildren fearing for their safety as their Mexican schoolmates talk of violence and murder, school buses “tailed” by armed private security guards and criminals relocating to the United States with their families and conducting their operations from this country. The single greatest spillover effect: U.S. citizens living in fear.

While border security is undeniably a federal responsibility, spillover effects are principally dealt with by local jurisdictions — and along the U.S.-Mexico border, this is mostly sheriff’s offices operating in large, sparsely populated county areas supported by small tax bases.

Border counties are among the poorest in the United States and can barely afford to hire and equip sufficient, qualified law enforcement personnel to meet citizens’ needs.

While billions of federal dollars are spent each year to increase the number and technical capabilities of Border Patrol agents, little is being done to improve security beyond the border area. An increase in border patrol agents gives the appearance of more security. But what about the soil past those agents’ narrow jurisdiction?

Consider: Together, the seven West Texas counties to the east of El Paso County comprise 27,370 square miles, some 3,140 square miles larger than the state of West Virginia. Yet they employ fewer than 70 law enforcement officers year-round. This translates to one officer to patrol 396 square miles. And these are the counties that endure the greatest spillover effects of Mexican violence, as innocents and others seek refuge.

Much is said about the need for immigration reform, but comprehensive reform remains stalled. Border security is promoted as an aspect of this issue, but no one is taking on the real deficiencies. Efforts among all agencies — federal, state, local and tribal — must be aligned and provided adequate resources. A unified effort requires interagency adherence to a comprehensive national border security strategy that outlines goals, measurable objectives, well-defined priorities and common methods.

Without a comprehensive security plan from which officials at all levels can draw, we cannot create the conditions for true security. When Congress appropriates emergency funds, as it did in August, it sounds like a lot is being done. But in the absence of an agreed-upon plan, lawmakers will continue to spend on projects that fail to contribute efficiently to progress, and it’s not clear how we justify the resources needed to adequately staff, train and equip law enforcement agencies for coordinated border security operations.

U.S. border security cannot continue to be left to various law enforcement agencies that employ different procedures, lexicons and equipment, and whose objectives and priorities may conflict. Conducting operations in jurisdictional stovepipes precludes interagency coordination and cooperation. Maintaining the status quo means we will continue to give up miles of U.S. territory to criminals who threaten our citizens as they pass through our border counties to the depths of our country.

Napolitano announced on her El Paso trip that the Department of Homeland Security will deploy as many as 550 more border agents in the next year. Meanwhile, a handful of deputies and I will be the principal non-federal law enforcement within a border county of nearly 2,400 square miles. We will not have the benefit of the new technologies developed for Customs and Border Protection agents, nor the information they process.

In short, our nation is not developing the law enforcement teams capable of securing our borders.

Americans rightly expect a unified effort among all law enforcement agencies operating along the border. We will not get there until our leaders in Washington recognize that need.

The writer is sheriff of Terrell County, Tex., and a past president of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition.