AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Public Policy Foundation organized a panel discussion at the Texas Capitol to address the crisis along the Texas border. The speakers painted a picture far different from how the situation is portrayed by most of the media and government officials. The panel was presented to a standing-room-only crowd and moderated by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. Participants included Rancher and Chairman of the Texas Border Volunteers Dr. Mike Vickers, Border Patrol agent and Vice President of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) Shawn Moran, and Breitbart Texas Managing Director Brandon Darby.
Arlene Wohlgemuth, executive director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told Breitbart Texas that they were interested in organizing this panel because of the vital importance of the topic to our state. “We in Texas have more to lose from bad federal border policy, and more to gain from good policy,” Wohlgemuth said. “We must get this right. The issue deserves our serious consideration…we’ve got to lead the way.”
In his introductory remarks, Staples flatly rejected the statements from the Obama administration and other government officials that the border was secure. He cited programs like Operation Drawbridge — a DPS initiative involving using game cameras on private land and other technology — that have had some successes, but the situation is far from “secure.” The number of people apprehended crossing the border has increased about one hundred percent in the past year, according to Staples, and that figure has increased across the board, not just for the unaccompanied alien children (UACs) who have captured so much media attention.
The first panelist to speak was Moran, who is based in San Diego, California and has 17 years of experience as a Border Patrol Agent along the Texas border. Moran spoke passionately about his work with NBPC, describing it as a “great honor” to serve his country on the Border Patrol and to represent the 17,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents who are part of the NBPC and put their lives on the line.
Moran has special concern for the more than 100 Border Patrol agents who have died in the line of duty. He mentioned the recent case of Javier Vega, who was killed while fishing with his family when they were robbed by two illegal aliens. The NBPC has been fighting to get his murder recognized as a death in the line of duty. As Breitbart Texas reported, the two illegal aliens attacked Vega’s family approximately 40 miles into the U.S. They killed Agent Vega while he was on a fishing trip in front of his wife, children, mother, and father. Moran mentioned that getting Vega’s death classified as a line of duty death would provide greater compensation and benefits to his family, as well as official recognition of his service to our country.
Moran emphasized in his remarks a serious and longstanding problem with the Border Patrol being understaffed. Congress has failed to allocate sufficient funds for salaries and expenses to field the full number of agents authorized under law. Moran shared the frustration that many agents have about this situation, especially during the added pressures of the current crisis, stating that “common sense says that the first thing you would do” would be to respond to the border crisis with the personnel who have primary responsibility for border security — The Border Patrol. “We are the only people out there who have the federal authority to do this job,” he added.
The next panelist was Dr. Vickers, a veterinarian and leader of about three hundred landowners along the Texas border and supporters who work with law enforcement to track drug and human traffickers. He started Texas Border Volunteers about nine years ago in response to increased violence in his border community.
“I’m here to tell you right now,” said Vickers, “that the cartels control one hundred percent of the waterfront property from Brownsville to El Paso,” as well as a significant amount of the land along the border. The cartels are not physically occupying the land to accomplish this, he clarified, but rather engaging in an intimidation campaign that swiftly and violently retaliates against anyone who cooperates with law enforcement.
Vickers scoffed at politicians who would claim the border is secure. During the five day period after Obama said the border was secure, Vickers heard reports of over 5,000 people crossed in his area. Worse are the hundreds of bodies they find of the many people who do not survive the trip. “These coyotes are ruthless,” said Vickers, telling how the coyotes will frequently abandon people without adequate food and water, and tell them lies about how far they will need to walk to the nearest city.
Vickers also discussed evidence of people coming from the Middle East, showing the audience an Urdu-English dictionary the found on his land, finding Iranian money, and mentioning four Syrians who were apprehended this year.
He was more positive than the other panelists about the effectiveness of recent surge operations, commenting that they “give relief” to the people along the border. Responding to criticism that the DPS agents deployed in the most recent surge were nothing more than “scarecrows,” Vickers said that even a scarecrow with binoculars and a phone could be a “force multiplier.”
Staples then introduced Darby, who gave a lot of praise to Moran and the NBPC. “I’m not a big fan of unions,” he said, but if it were not for the Border Patrol union, and for other agents willing to risk their jobs and pensions, we would not have been able to get the photos and reports they provided, and “we would have no way to know” the true stories about what is happening on our border.
Darby noted the substantial amount of misleading and incorrect information being disseminated. Many media reports about foreign nationals implicated in major drug busts only identify them by being from the American city where they were residing when arrested, not their country of origin or the fact that they are in our country illegally. Obama has also claimed that he has deported more people than any other president, which Darby rejected as “a bold faced lie.” Obama artificially inflates the numbers by including voluntary deportations, which no prior administration has done.
Darby was skeptical of the effectiveness of the recent surge efforts, especially the limited focus shown in only deploying extra personnel to one of Texas’ five sectors, the Rio Grande Valley sector. “We’re being told that we’re on the way to having a more secure border, and I don’t think that’s true,” said Darby. The reality, Darby insisted, is that we have had a lot of cameras and technology for awhile that let Border Patrol know that someone is crossing, but there have not been enough agents to respond. The deployment of DPS, and most recently Texas National Guard, has these additional personnel acting like human cameras, but still not enough Border Patrol agents to respond.
In Darby’s view, the UACs were not themselves a security risk, but “here’s the problem: the children’s crisis is part of a larger crisis,” pointing out how adults from countries like Yemen were taking advantage of the same pathways that the children have to enter the country.
Darby commented on his motivations with Breitbart Texas’ and the priority that he personally placed on this issue. “There is no way in the world that my desire to support a conservative political candidate or to get along with my readers is going to outweigh my commitment to the men and women of law enforcement.”
A question and answer session revealed even more harsh truths about the situation on the border. Noting the higher concentration of Border Patrol agents in other states (about seven agents per mile in Texas , compared to an average of 14 to 17 agents per mile in other border states), Staples asked Moran what he thought about the staffing discrepancy. After cracking a joke — “If it made sense, it wouldn’t be the Border Patrol” — Moran explained that the staffing figures were even lower in reality, referring to the agents assigned to each station for all shifts. Because there are three standard shifts and allowing for sick and vacation time, the actual number of agents on the border at any given time is less than a third of the reported figures.
Moran stated that the cartels are taking advantage of the current crisis to put even more pressure on the understaffed agents as the UACs end up occupying their attention and needing to be processed, taking more agents out of the field. The cartels are then able to move drugs and their key personnel across other areas of the border.
Darby also pushed back against the media narrative that the children were coming here because of crushing poverty and violence in their home countries. He cited data from the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) that was obtained when they interviewed 230 UACs who crossed the border in the past year. Within this group, 219 acknowledged their home countries were poor but their motivation to cross the border came from the reports of “permisos,” because they were told they would be allowed to stay. How they got this impression is obvious: in 2013, 98% of minors who came from noncontiguous nations (anywhere other than Canada and Mexico) were allowed to stay. In 2014 so far, that figure is 99.9%.
Contrary to media reports characterizing the current crisis as mostly people who turned themselves in to authorities, Darby pointed out that “the majority of people crossing our border do not want to be caught.” Moreover, even those who were turning themselves in peacefully still presented a security risk for the Border Patrol agents. When UACs or a young family voluntarily surrender to the Border Patrol, then that agent is now responsible for processing their paperwork and taking care of them until authorities from other federal immigration agencies can take over, thereby leaving the area previously monitored by that agent unguarded.
Moran described a high level of frustration that Border Patrol agents have with their strict rules of engagement. The agents used to board busses and trains in San Diego and quickly and easily apprehend enough illegal immigrants to fill one of their transport vehicles. However, because this was so effective, people complained and shockingly, the government put a stop to the practice, only allowing them to board public transportation when they had “specific and actionable intelligence.”
“Every time we’ve been effective, we’ve been curtailed,” said Moran, noting that this occurred under both Democrat and Republican administrations, “and our agents are caught in the middle.”
Darby echoed Moran’s comments about the frustration felt by Border Patrol agents. Darby described them as feeling like their hands are essentially tied, as they arrest people and turn them in, only for policy under another part of the federal government to result in them being released with nothing more restrictive than a notice to appear. “That’s not the agent’s fault,” said Darby, pointing out that the Border Patrol want the immigration laws properly enforced as much as, if not more than, any other American.
When questioned about possible changes to the laws that would increase penalties for drug smugglers and human traffickers, Moran was supportive, saying “our agents are assaulted almost every day,” including not just getting punched, kicked, and scratched, but also getting shot at and having rocks and other objects thrown at them. Frustratingly, the federal policy is to be very lenient, with Moran reporting that unless the agent nearly died as a result of an attack, prosecutions were extremely rare. Fortunately, there is starting to be hope at the state level, as states are passing stricter laws and local and state prosecutors are more aggressively pursuing these cases.
Vickers added to Moran’s comments that they frequently had seen in South Texas where a coyote would be apprehended only to be let go immediately if the coyote had five or fewer people attending with him. Even the few who do serve jail time are usually in for only a few months, he reported, even after multiple offenses. Another shocking story shared by Vickers: federal prosecutors in Brooks County were frequently not pursuing cases where the drug traffickers are caught with less than 500 pounds of marijuana.
Regarding the costs to effectively secure the border, Moran expressed scorn for the proposed billions of dollars going to address the current crisis, as the money was being directed “all on the back end — immigration judges, payments for sponsor families hosting UACs, etc. — and hardly any for border enforcement. A better solution, and a top priority for the Border Patrol union, according to Moran, is to radically increase the penalties for employees who hire illegal workers, including both corporations and individuals hiring domestic and landscaping workers. “If illegal aliens know they cannot come and work,” said Moran, “then we can focus our resources” on the criminals and traffickers.
Darby also had expressed doubt about the true effectiveness of the temporary surges of personnel along only a small portion of the border, which he characterized as a “piecemeal approach.” The issue, according to Darby, “isn’t just spending money,” but rather how resources are allocated. We need to get more Border Patrol agents hired, active, and on the ground, and restructure the procedures and policies to allow them to work the hours that they need. Resources also need to be reallocated on the justice side of the immigration system, said Darby, advocating for changing how the U.S. Attorneys prioritize their cases, as well as having the FBI reassign resources to attack corruption on the border.
Asked about the humanitarian aspect of the border crisis, Darby responded, “I think an open border is inhumane,” and reminded the audience about the thousands of dollars that desperate people are paying to coyotes that just goes to further their criminal activities, not to mention the terrifying abuse that many who travel to this country — especially young women — must endure. Young women and even underage girls embark on the journey to the United States with the expectation that they will be raped along the way. Darby told about how parents were providing their daughters with birth control pills before they left, and even more horrifyingly, shared stories of “rape trees,” where the coyotes would rape women and then tie an article of their clothing or undergarments on the tree as a sadistic trophy to brag about what they had just done.
“The humanitarian approach is to make sure that there is security on our border,” said Darby, not to continue to allow people to enter our country unchecked, and able to be take advantage of by the coyotes.
One other positive solution discussed by Moran was the Border Patrol Pay Reform Act, sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) in the Senate and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in the House. Described by Moran as “the most important thing we see right now,” the bill would reform the current pay system for Border Patrol agents, allowing for an increase to full staffing and pay stability. The issue of understaffing is viewed as so critical by agents that they support this reform, even though many of them would face a pay cut. Considering the fiscal challenges facing the federal government, the current political environment, and the prohibition on agents striking, this is their favored solution.
Grassroots America’s executive director, Joann Fleming, has been very involved in border security issues and visited the border with Darby on a trip organized by Breitbart Texas last month. Fleming had positive remarks about the panel but told Breitbart Texas that none of the information presented was surprising to her. “It is just a shame” how the Border Patrol agents are underpaid and understaffed, Fleming said. “It’s a national disgrace.”
Video from the panel can be viewed at Cahnman’s Musings blog.
[Disclosure: The author of this article was previously employed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.]
You can follow her on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.