This past Saturday was a glorious day to be out and about in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, here in South Texas. It was the first cool day we have had in two seasons.
I spent some of the morning at Hope Park, looking through the bars of the border wall and across the Rio Grande to Mexico. I was with a reporter and a photographer from Le Monde, the French equivalent, I am thinking, of the New York Times.
Also enjoying the cooler weather were a couple of women setting up some performance art. They were planning to fly some kites that had been created by Brownsville children, at the same time that some neighbors in Matamoros, the Mexican sister city to Brownsville, were going to launch their own kites. It was a gentle way to create yet another bridge with Mexico.
Earlier during the week, the Texas House Homeland Security Committee had come to town to hear testimony and hold discussion on issues related to border security and operations. This was a good thing, as the 2015 Texas Legislature had given $800 million to the Department of Public Safety (the state troopers and the Texas Rangers) to “secure the border with Mexico.” This is an enormous sum of money that did not otherwise go to education, access to health care or affordable housing. It was also money being spent on what is essentially a duplication of efforts—the federal government is already spending at least $10 billion (by my count) on border security. The representatives of the people were looking for a report on the usage of that money.
Commander Steve McCraw of the Texas Department of Public Safety, the man responsible for this accounting, was there for the testimony. He was supposed to explain not only the results of the $800 million effort, but needed to lay out the reasons that he was asking for yet another $300 million to continue the job.
McCraw was pressed by the legislators to show what effect that investment had on border security. “What are the people of Texas getting from this investment? Please show us how the border is more secure,” the Commander was asked over and again. McCraw’s replies were round about; he complicated them with Powerpoint pie charts and graphs. “But what does that mean?” asked the representative from Del Rio, the border town up the river from Brownsville, “How are we better off?”
The question that drove the entire day of hearings was “What does it mean to have a secure border?” The answer to that question, if it is simply restricted to criminal activity, is so difficult to gauge.
But many of us who live here along the border have a different way of gauging security. A secure border, for us, is a place in which all residents feel safe—whether they are living in a border community, or passing through a border community. That safety means much more than a lack of crime (according to FBI reports, border cities are the safest in the state—both before and after the “surge” of state troopers).
What makes our border community feel insecure is the fact that we do not have a public hospital, and that Texas did not expand Medicaid, leaving an estimated 400,000 people in our region without access to affordable medical care.
What makes our mothers and fathers nervous is not so much the specter of shootouts on our streets, but that are schools are so underfunded as to make it nearly impossible for our children to compete with fellow students from other parts of the country.
As citizens, we know that the solutions to these and other issues that profoundly affect our quality of life require a financial investment on the part of the state. When we see the state invest $800 million in border security, when we hear about plans to bump that up another $300 million this session—and when there are no good reasons for these expenditures, our profound sense of insecurity receives a jolt of despair. And we are becoming increasingly angry.
For it has been clearly shown that investment in community clinics saves lives (and we can show those numbers), we cannot understand how the diversion of funds from that noble enterprise is justified by what seems to be a bait and switch scheme that actually undermines our communities’ trust in law enforcement.
Just as we can establish that each dollar invested in public education yields a proportionately better return on that investment in terms of jobs and community well-being, we would like to understand how an increased police presence in our border is better for business or our community’s well being.
Finally, just as we can know when a storm drainage plan works (pipes carry water away), how can we tell that these $800 million have made a bit of difference in the security of our already safe, much beloved communities? We would like to be able to use that information when we explain to our children that this money was better spent on policing than schools, clinics or infrastructure.
We have multiple walls along our border. There is the famous prototype for the Trump plan (which all agree has been a colossal waste of money), and there is the souped up Border Patrol presence—the largest police force in the world (“So many Border Patrol agents now patrol the southern border that if they lined up equally from Brownsville to San Diego, they would stand in plain sight of one another”).
And, recently, there are the state troopers.
So very much of this in response to the “surge” in 2014 of Central American women and children and fathers and grandfathers, refugees in any normal sense of the term. These poor people crossed the river, and surrendered to the Border Patrol. They were not deterred by the multiple police forces; they were not trying to outfox the government and escape into the depths of our country. The Border Patrol did its job, as did the Central Americans. It is so very difficult to understand how a billion dollars of scarce state resources will change any of that.
Life along the border is richly complicated, as the photographer from Le Monde learned on Saturday. She was taking pictures of a thirteen or fourteen year old girl as the she peered at the river through the border wall bars. They spoke together for a few minutes and then the photographer rejoined me in the parking lot. “You know,” the photo-journalist said, “She thinks that this is the spot where her parents crossed her into the USA, when she was but a little girl.”
The girl joined her dad and mom. They walked along the sidewalk toward town, three border residents who were going about their business of taking care of each other, of taking care of their family, of worrying about each other.