By Stefanie Herweck
This week Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst addressed an assembly of border residents and community leaders in Harlingen, Texas, less than 15 miles from the Rio Grande, and proclaimed that there was a war going on along the border. His assessment of the border was extreme: “We have two wars everyone talks about going on, one is in Iraq and one is in Afghanistan. We’ve got a third going on and that’s the border.”
Dewhurst made this announcement in the keynote speech for State Senator Eddie Lucio’s State of the District Address. With Senator Lucio looking on, Dewhurst went on to make his case for war on the border, speaking in vague terms about “transnational gangs,” “drug lords killing Americans,” and “border violence,” but providing little in the way of concrete details. He urged that more law enforcement be deployed in order to “close down this border.”
Dewhurst’s comparison of the U.S.-Mexico border region to war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan is offensive and absurd. His characterization of a border at war is based on ignorant hysteria instead of reality. And his portrayal of the border region as the dangerous fount of criminal activity for the rest of the state and the country is categorically false.
When pressed in an interview after the speech to provide the details that would support his claims, Dewhurst said, “We’ve seen incidence of gangs, drive by shootings, in Wichita Falls, which is a long way from the border.” The Lieutenant Governor is right about one thing here: 600 miles between Wichita Falls and the Texas-Mexico border is a long way. But declaring war on the border in order to fight crime in Wichita Falls is ludicrous.
Especially because most Texas border cities are actually safer than Wichita Falls. Although Wichita Falls has 30,000 fewer people than the border city of McAllen, its crime rate in 2008 was higher than McAllen’s. According to FBI statistics, Wichita Falls had 557 incidences of violent crime in 2008, while McAllen only had 371. El Paso was ranked as the third safest large city in the United States in the same year. And all of these cities saw a decrease in violent crime from 2007 to 2008, as did the nation as a whole. Dewhurst’s perverse fantasy of a chaotic crime-ridden border simply does not match the relatively peaceful day-to-day border reality.
In his speech, Dewhurst also cited briefings he has received from the Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement. When asked to elaborate on these briefings after his speech, he cited no official reports or criminological studies, but said “Virtually every city I go into I talk to the DPS and I talk to the local police and they have all seen a pick up of gang activity that they feel is related to drug cartels in Mexico.” While the views of law enforcement officers around the state are valuable, it is irresponsible to make policy recommendations based on their “feelings” rather than hard facts.
Furthermore, Dewhurst has apparently failed to consult with law enforcement officials in the border region. When interviewed by NPR this spring, Brownsville Police Chief Carlos Garcia noted that there had only been 3 homicides in his city in 2008, and that none of them were related to drug cartels. In the same article McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez provided some perceptive analysis that Dewhurst should heed: “The sky is not falling,” he said, refuting unfounded statements by pundits and politicians that cartel violence was spilling over at the border. "What's happening right now is we've got rhetoric that's driving the policy."
When it was pointed out after his speech that his talk of war might not be welcome at the border, Dewhurst quickly wrote it off as just a rhetorical strategy: “I use the word 'war' only in the sense to get people’s attention to understand that there’s a serious problem along our porous southern and northern border.”
Unfortunately, as Chief Rodriguez well understands, rhetoric drives policy. Dewhurst’s declaration of war on the border may be intended as nothing more than a metaphor, but it is likely to have real consequences for the residents of the Texas border.
In his own speech, Dewhurst called for more actual boots on the ground to deal with the war scenario that he later claimed was purely rhetorical. This same border war rhetoric is driving Governor Perry’s call for troops to patrol the border and military predator aircraft to fly up and down the Rio Grande. This month he stationed a specialized team of the Texas Rangers that will reportedly be patrolling the border region carrying automatic weapons, and wearing camouflage, helmets, and bullet-proof vests.
The governor’s action comes despite his own admission that crime along the border has been falling in recent years. And it has been deemed unnecessary by border law enforcement. Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño said, “We don't need the Texas Rangers to come to the border to quell any imaginary disturbance.”
Although sending the Texas Rangers or the National Guard to fight an imaginary war at the border might make for good sound bites in the rest of the state, it sends a shiver down the spine of border residents. Community and business leaders fear that their efforts to develop the border region will be undermined by the false perception of a dangerous, militarized border. Residents know that staging a war in their communities, parks, and farmlands only puts them more at risk.
Border war rhetoric like Dewhurst’s drives policy on the national stage as well. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina introduced an amendment to the 2010 DHS Appropriations Bill calling for more than 300 miles of new border wall. If the amendment passes, hundreds of those miles could be built in Texas. These walls are being proposed despite the fact that the hundreds of miles of border walls already built have not stopped people from crossing the border. Wayne Cornelius, Director Emeritus of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego, say that despite the walls at the border, between 92% and 98% of all those attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally eventually get through. This month, a report by the Government Accountability Office faulted the Department of Homeland Security for having no effective way to gauge the impacts that border walls are having on illegal entry.
But the myth of a border war trumps the reality that walls don’t work. In the press release about his amendment, DeMint says that more border walls are urgently needed because “our southern border has become a battleground.”
Too many walls already blight the Texas borderlands. Texas citizens have had their private property stripped away to make way for walls. Texas cities have seen their landscape forever marred by them. Texas natural areas, wildlife refuges and parks have been irreparably damaged by them. All of this destruction is rooted in the myth of the border war.
Dewhurst’s inflammatory war rhetoric may have been intended only to “get people’s attention,” but the consequences for his constituents along the border are very real. When our borderlands are decreed a war zone, politicians in Austin and Washington forget that it is a place that millions of people call home. They jump on the border war bandwagon, hoping to score political points and to burnish their law-and-order credentials. Like Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, they make the border a scapegoat for crime in the rest of the Texas and the United States. Like Gov. Perry and Sen. DeMint, they dream up absurd, and ultimately destructive, schemes to fight an imaginary war.
Border residents desperately need leaders who will reject the border war scenario, who will refuse to bear false witness against the borderlands and who will work tirelessly to represent the reality of border life at the state and national level. We need uncompromising leaders who will not be complicit in the border war myth, who will actively oppose the schemes based on this myth, and who will not sit silently by as the border region that they were elected to represent is mischaracterized, maligned and damaged.