August 3, 2010
Last week, I went to El Paso, wearing my hat as Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security. It was an excellent and educational trip.
A key moment of the whole deal may have been at about 9:30 Monday night, as I was getting ready to do what they call a nighttime “ride along” with a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper.
I was introduced to a dude straight out of Central Casting. Big, tall, good-looking guy, wearing the full trooper uniform, including cowboy hat. Extremely polite. I got called “Sir” more times in three minutes than Paul McCartney does in a week.
After the howdy do’s, he said, “Sir, I need to show you a few things related to safety.” So he walked me over to the car and opened the back door on the driver side. The front door was already open.
He looked down at me, pointed toward the (currently only imaginary) gang that might be out in front of the car at some point that night, and calmly said, “Sir, if we end up in a situation where there are multiple people involved, this is where you will be.”
Being a pretty dang quick thinker, particularly at moments when I’m on high-alert, I thought, “Hmm, I suppose it makes sense. In a so-called ‘situation’ involving multiple bad guys, safety dictates putting the senator at the back of the car behind two open doors, which obviously can be used as shields.” I was only slightly insulted that they envisioned me cowering back there in the fetal position during a gangland firefight.
But the Trooper elegantly diffused that silly notion. Before I even had time to practice my crouch-and-duck, he deftly reached down to the back seat, removed a piece of elastic, and released an M4 gun. He pulled it out, held it up, and pointed it at the prospective enemies – doing a mock demonstration of how a guy who stands a foot shorter than him would look emptying the gun.
He said, “This is where I need you.” He gave me a quick lesson in how to manipulate my new weapon. And he said, “There’s only one rule. . . . Don’t shoot the guy in the cowboy hat.”
An M4 seems to do a lot to help focus the mind. But the whole trip felt intense.
I spent most of it learning about violence on the other side of the border, and the truly important work that people are doing to keep it from spilling into Texas. I also took a helicopter ride along the border so that I could see the fencing – some old and some new – that’s intended to slow those trying to get into the country illegally, and also see from the air the various legal entry points.
First of all, Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, is every bit as scary as you’ve heard. It is, for all intents and purposes, a city under the occupation of drug cartels – and those cartels are at nothing less than war.
The level of violence is truly astonishing, and it obviously can’t help but affect El Pasoans. For example, a couple of weeks ago, bullets that were fired outside a store in Juarez ended up breaking a window at El Paso City Hall, about a half-mile away.
But here’s the thing – El Paso itself is quite safe, one of the safest cities of its size in the nation. That fact, for a place next-door to an almost lawless environment, is an enormous credit to the people living, working and raising families in El Paso, and to the extraordinary men and women at all levels of government who are working to keep it safe.
And they are extraordinary. I was highly impressed with the level of cooperation that you see among federal, state, county and city law enforcement officers there. I learned about a recent, highly successful four-day operation there in which federal officers were in charge for two days and state officials were in charge for the other two days.
To a significant degree, the pros are less focused on politics and more focused on addressing the issues of how to fight the true fight.
There are so many things that Texas can be doing to improve border security. The border needs to be the focus of our homeland security money. And we need to do the things, budgetary and otherwise, to assure that DPS can be a truly 21st Century law enforcement agency.
But perhaps the most important thing, as in so many areas, is that we’ve got to make sure our eyes are focused where they need to be.
I wrote a while back about immigration and the importance of pulling scare tactics and race-baiting rhetoric out of that debate.
Well, it’s just as important that Texans, their leaders, and everyone else stop fusing together the unmitigated horror of a drug war with the enormously complicated immigration issue.
Are there efficiencies to be had? Without question. Government agencies that work side-by-side should look for every opportunity to function as effectively and cheaply as possible.
But the scourge of border violence is criminality so extreme that it’s deservedly thought of in military terms. Immigration, on the other hand, is as much an economic matter as it is a legal one. It’s a different issue, and it needs to be treated as one.
Taking time and energy away from border safety and security, and directing those resources toward immigration enforcement, will do nothing but weaken us in both areas.
As I saw last week, there’s simply too much at stake for us to let that happen.