EAGLE PASS, TEXAS — Sam Farhat grew up in this small south Texas town where he now owns Cowboy Corral, a clothing shop where customers peruse racks of jeans, belts, and shirts while Farhat — a big man of Palestinian heritage wearing a cowboy hat — answers their questions in Spanish.
Farhat's business depends upon the foot traffic that legally enters the United States from Mexico, just blocks from his downtown storefront. Outside, people leaving discount perfume, dress, and shoe stores carry shopping bags as they cross the bridge on foot, walking past cars lined up waiting to cross the border.
But talk in Washington of tightening border security in towns like Eagle Pass as part of broader immigration reforms has locals weary. "That's not going to help business, that's for sure," Farhat said. "It's already hard enough for people to come across the border."
For residents in Eagle Pass and other nearby towns, the border is not a political topic or an abstract concept — the Rio Grande River that separates Mexico from the United States is in their backyard. Many of the ideas under consideration, from border fencing to additional Border Patrol agents and even drones overhead, will have a direct impact here.
"Those of us who live along the border want to be just as safe and secure in our beds as anyone else does, but we want a solution that works," said Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego, whose district includes Eagle Pass. "We don't want a political solution, we want a practical solution."
That may not be easy. In many ways, Eagle Pass represents the complexity of living in small border towns, where life can be woven together tightly with those of neighboring communities in Mexico. Residents here cross the border regularly into the town of Piedras Negras, Mexico, to visit families and friends. Lines can get long on both sides of the bridge around Christmas and Easter. Communities along the border often refer to their "sister cities" on the Mexican side, and mayors and local agencies have working relationships. What happens on one side often affects the other.
"Blood lines don't stop," said Laura Allen, the Republican county judge in nearby Val Verde County, which includes the town of Del Rio. "Relationships don't stop at the river."
Securing the Border
In terms of security, Border Patrol agents are a more common sight in town than local police, and they often help in responding to emergencies. And the town already has some border fencing; in 2008, Eagle Pass was the first town the federal government sued in its effort to increase border fencing, drawing fierce opposition from town officials and residents.
If Congress passes an immigration bill, many of the security elements could intensify. The immigration bill passed by the Senate essentially calls for instituting a military-like presence along the border, spending $46 billion to double the number of Border Patrol agents to 40,000, build 700 miles of border fencing, and bolster technology such as drones to increase surveillance.
Border-security legislation unanimously passed out of the House Homeland Security Committee, authored by Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, takes a different approach. Before a dollar amount is dictated, the bill calls on the Homeland Security Department to first develop a border-security plan — subject to congressional approval — that would eliminate 90 percent of illegal border crossings within five years. Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee cosponsored the bill, and other Democrats have signaled they find the language easier to work with than the Senate border-security provision. It's expected to be one of the first pieces of immigration legislation that House takes up after recess.
The congressional district with the longest stretch of the Mexican-U.S. border includes Eagle Pass. It's a swing district that President Obama lost but Gallego won in 2012. Gallego says border security is not a partisan issue in his district.
"One of the frustrations that people along the border have is so many people who are trying to drive the debate on border policy and border security are people who don't live on the border, who've never been to the border, and yet they're trying to dictate the terms by which we do border security," he said.
Indeed, there is a widespread sentiment here that people making political calculations about the border don't have sense of what daily life is like in border communities.
"They use the border, they see the area as a sword and a shield in politics, but we're human beings, we live down here," said Democratic State Rep. Poncho Nevarez, whose home is on the banks of the Rio Grande, so close that he can point to Mexico from his porch. His wife is Mexican, and his children take classes across the border.
"We shouldn't be pawns in this game to see who can get themselves elected because they can beat their chest more about how they secured the border," he said.
Unlike other parts of the border where violence from Mexico makes headlines, officials here say problems are comparatively tame, partially due to the presence of Border Patrol and state of affairs in neighboring Mexican cities.
"We're kind of the unseen area of the border here. You can go to El Paso, you can go to Laredo, but they don't have the same issues we have," Allen said. "Ask me when was the last time we had to shut down our bridge because violence spilled over from Mexico. It's not happening."
Border Patrol officials say they do apprehend people who commit serious crimes in the U.S. and cross back illegally. In the Del Rio border sector, 50 pounds of cocaine and 63,485 pounds of marijuana were seized by Border Patrol in fiscal 2012.
One major public-safety scare took place here last year, when more than 130 inmates broke out of a prison just over the border in Piedras Negras. Authorities at the time were concerned that prisoners could cross over to Eagle Pass, but it turns out that a Mexican drug cartel was likely behind the prison break, a tactic cartels use to replenish their ranks. Authorities found one suspected escapee this summer hiding in a home in Eagle Pass, but there was no other fallout.
Nevarez, who can point to the prison area from his yard, recalled rushing home after hearing of the break. But his fears were quickly allayed as he reasoned that many of those prisoners weren't going to cross into American soil, but rather stay in Mexico to work for the cartels.
Gallego says that people in border communities are united behind wanting to do something about the cartels and drug trade.
"The people coming here, even if they're coming here illegally, they're coming here to work in agriculture or construction," said Shawn Moran, vice president of National Border Patrol Council, a union representing Border Patrol agents. "But there is a large group that is coming here to sell drugs or be part of criminal gangs and commit crimes. We shouldn't overlook that in any sort of immigration reform."
The Border Patrol
Border Patrol and other federal agencies often constitute the most visible law enforcement in border communities. About 55,000 people live in the town and its outlying areas in Maverick County; Eagle Pass's police department numbered 76 in 2012.
Authorities won't release figures on the numbers of border agents designated for particular towns, but Eagle Pass and Del Rio are the two major towns in the Del Rio Border Patrol sector, which includes 210 miles of border and nearly 60,000 square miles of territory.There were 1,665 Border Patrol agents designated for this area in 2012, a figure that doesn't include Customs and Border Protection and other federal agents.
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Nearly 87 percent of the nation's 21,394 Border Patrol agents come from the nine southwest border sectors. The Del Rio sector ranks in the middle in terms of the number of agents.
While Border Patrol agents are accepted as members of the community and regarded with respect, Gallego said some locals get frustrated with the checkpoints. Border Patrol checkpoints on roads extend far beyond the border; all motorists have to stop and answer questions related to their citizenship. A dog trained to detect drugs sniffs cars, and checkpoint stations are equipped with cameras, equipment to detect radioactive elements, and temporary holding cells for suspected illegal immigrants.
In 2012, the Border Patrol apprehended 21,720 illegal immigrants in the Del Rio sector, the highest number in the sector since 2007 and much higher than the El Paso sector's 9,678 apprehensions.
Moran says the border can be secured with fewer than the additional 20,000 agents called for in the Senate bill. His group pushed for an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that would have revamped the pay system to allow flexibility for agents working overtime and covering shifts.
"It's usually during the busiest times, and when the smugglers know when we're in between shifts, and that's when they try to make their moves," Moran said.
The addition of more Border Patrol agents could have an economic impact in these communities, with an influx of jobs and dollars spent locally. Some ranchers and others living further from the border also want more agents to monitor those traversing their properties as they make their way inland. But many officials close to the border are skeptical that the federal government will be able to fully fund and sustain a doubling of Border Patrol agents.
"If you're telling me you're going to double the number of government jobs in my community and if you're going to allow these people to contribute to the economy, they're going to eat out at restaurants and shop at stores and buy homes — from an economic development perspective, I'm for that," Gallego said. "But that's not a border-security perspective. We haven't done anything for border security when we've done that."
Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantu said that while there is a need to "have a great presence," he would like to see resources poured into Customs and Border Protection, which operate the official entry points into the United States and where lines can back up. "We continue to see ports of entries where people are smuggling drugs across because there isn't the necessary infrastructure," he said. "These are the things that need to be ultimately addressed."
Farhat and others in Eagle Pass would like to see more resources poured into shortening the lines at the official ports of entry, which are operated by Customs and Border Protection, not Border Patrol. Tolls collected at the town's two points of entry make up more than a quarter of Eagle Pass's budget revenues.
The fence, which once drew outrage in these communities, now attracts a level of amusement.
In Eagle Pass, it's more than 10 feet high, cuts through a city golf course, and includes openings throughout. "If those folks in Ohio were to see this, they'd say, 'Is this what you're wasting my tax dollars on?' " Nevarez said.
In Del Rio, American land sits on the other side of an approximately 2-mile portion of the fence, and Allen asks whether the American government has created a Demilitarized Zone. It stops at a low, barbed-wire fence on private property. Locals point to the fence gates, with extra horizontal bars, as places people climb over.
"The fence was not a good thing," Allen said. "We would have liked to see that money put to use for other things because, like I said, I can very easily show you where people walk around it, so why did we spend all that money?"
Between 2006 and 2009, the federal government allocated $2.4 billion for construction of 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicular fences, with costs ranging between $400,000 and $15.1 million per mile, depending on the location, fence material, topography and kind of fence, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.
But Border Patrol officials point to the fence as a useful tool in helping to manage crossings; agents can target their patrols better since they know where the entry points are. Moran says the fence has been very useful in slowing down the traffic across the border, particularly vehicular crossings.
"But no fence is going to stop people who are determined to get into this country. You can't have a fence with gaps if you want it to be effective," Moran said. "The technology is great and it's an asset, but no drone and no fence or whatever made an arrest. Those help us do our jobs."
There's also a sense in border communities that the fence makes them appear to be bad neighbors.
"If we take this militia approach to our border, what kind of message are we sending to our sister country? I don't like that message," Allen said. "Would we do that on the border with Canada? I really don't feel like we would."