?Courtesy USA Today?
RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – Soon, teams of camouflage-wearing, gun-toting troops will patrol this small, peaceful border city, flying helicopters overhead and monitoring the comings and goings of its people.
That sits just fine with Mayor Ruben Villarreal.
The specter of hundreds of Texas Army National Guard troops descending onto border towns such as this one has rankled many in the Rio Grande Valley since the plan was announced by Gov. Rick Perry last week. Critics say militarizing the border is not the answer and could lead to unlawful detentions or even deaths.
But for Villarreal, whose city sits a football field length away from the border with Mexico, the thought of extra boots on the grounds is a welcome one.
"If anything, [the guardsmen] will send a strong message that our border will be secure," Villarreal said as he drove his Jeep over the dusty trails that lead to the border. "We'll have the manpower necessary to finally secure this area."
Perry's impending deployment -- no date has been announced -- of up to 1,000 National Guards troops to help deal with the border crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing over has been met with mixed response throughout Texas and the USA. More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have crossed illegally since October, more than double the previous fiscal year. They have overwhelmed federal detention facilities and Border Patrol offices.
Perry and other Texas officials say say drug runners, human smugglers and other criminal elements are sneaking into the USA while the Border Patrol is distracted by the crisis, and the National Guard could help collar those criminals. Critics call the move political theater by Perry, who is considering running for president in 2016, and say the troops, ill-trained to handle immigrants, could do more harm than good.
Militarizing the border – at a cost of more than $12 million a month to Texas taxpayers – also sends the wrong message about the Rio Grande Valley, said Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, whose county it is where most of the immigrant youth are crossing.
"There is no public safety crisis here," he said. "These are not drug dealers. These are not terrorists. These are human beings looking for something better than what they had."
Unlike previous National Guard deployments to the border ordered by the federal government, this one is state-ordered, meaning Texas will foot the bill and the troops will only help enforce state laws. On Tuesday, Maj. Gen. John Nichols, adjutantt general of the Texas Military Forces, told state lawmakers the guardsmen will staff observation posts, fly helicopter missions and back up agents of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who deployed to the border this summer.
The mission of the guardsmen is not to stop the flow of undocumented children but to combat criminal elements trying to slip through in the confusion, said Lucy Nashed, a Perry spokeswoman. At his press conference last week, Perry said "more than 203,000 criminal aliens" have been booked into Texas county jails in the past five years.
"As Border Patrol is being diverted from their law enforcement duties to give humanitarian aid to these kids, criminals are taking advantage of the opportunity to ramp up their illicit activities," she said.
But that criminal activity hasn't been evident to some other law enforcement agencies in the area. Janice Ayala, the San Antonio-based special agent in charge of federal Homeland Security Investigations, said her agents haven't noticed any spikes in crime resulting from the influx of immigrant youth.
There have been more arrests of smugglers, she said, but that's because of an upsurge in federal agents at the border, bolstering the web of Border Patrol checkpoints, public safety agents and sheriff's deputies.
"We have a multilayered enforcement system on the border right now," said Ayala, who also leads the federal Border Enforcement Security Task Force. "I can't say there's been an increase in suspected people getting by."
Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar, whose county borders three Mexican states, said he also hasn't noticed any criminal activity tied to the migrant youth crisis. "It's just a normal day in Webb County," he said.
About 100 miles south in Rio Grande City, residents and law enforcement officials say they, too, haven't seen any increased criminal activity. But the steady flow of migrants illegally crossing into their city remains worrisome.
Luis Manuel Cruz, 57, lives in a small house on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande. Nearly every day, groups of undocumented migrants from Mexico wander across the field and onto this street. Sometimes they trek through his backyard. Other times they try to get into his house to evade Border Patrol agents. Just as quickly as the federal agents haul them away, a new group appears, he said.
National Guard troops will be welcomed in his neighborhood, Cruz said. "They should've been here a long time ago," he said. "People don't realize the danger we're in here with so many people coming through."
Villarreal, the mayor, remembers fondly when the White House deployed National Guards troops to the Texas border two years ago. His city received a contingent of about 150 of them. The guardsmen, there for bout nine months, ran operation posts and mostly stayed out of sight. They were courteous, professional and helped deter crime, he said.
With the recent crisis, Villarreal fears that hardened criminals could be melding into his city. Last week, one of his police officers answered a noise complaint at a home and ended up arresting a suspected member of MS-13, the notorious prison gang with roots in Central America. The suspect was a recent arrival from El Salvador, Villarreal said.
Guardsmen in Rio Grande City could help prevent more from crossing over, he said.
"We're not just securing Rio Grande City or the state of Texas," Villarreal said. "We're securing the United States of America. This border is a gateway to the entire nation."
National Guard at border gets mixed reviews in Texas
?Courtesy USA Today?
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