Escobar: Rick Perry Is Wrong About El Paso
All Quiet on the Southern FrontBrian Stauffer
By VERONICA ESCOBAR
Published: October 5, 2011
ACCORDING to many of the leading Republican presidential candidates, including my governor, Rick Perry, the border between Texas and Mexico is among the most dangerous in the world. All of them insist that “securing” the border has to come before any sort of comprehensive immigration reform, but Mr. Perry has been particularly aggressive about it. “It is not safe on that border,” he said recently, and he called President Obama a liar for suggesting otherwise. He’s even said he was open to sending American troops into Mexico to counter the violence.
Those of us who actually live along the border know otherwise. El Paso, the largest city along the United States-Mexico border, is also one of the country’s safest cities and the heart of a vibrant binational community.
The region has its problems — our sister city across the border, Ciudad Juárez, has been ravaged by Mexico’s drug war — but a focus on a quasi-military approach ignores the need for real solutions to our economic and social challenges.
As a lifelong resident of El Paso, I find it disheartening to see our city, and the border region in general, misrepresented for political advantage. Texas border cities are as safe or safer than other cities their size in Texas.
Yet despite the facts, Mr. Perry continues to cast El Paso and our neighbors as poster cities for border violence: last year he claimed, without evidence, that bombs were exploding in our streets and that Juárez was the most dangerous city in America (even though it’s in Mexico).
Mr. Perry is far from alone. Many Republican politicians — and not a few Democrats, too — use the bogeyman of border violence to justify exorbitant security measures, like the ever-lengthening border fence that costs $2.8 million per mile (for a total of $6.5 billion, including maintenance, over the 20-year lifetime of the fence). Mr. Perry’s brainchild, security cameras, have so far cost $4 million to put in place and maintain.
These measures do little besides waste money. Tunnels already run below the border fence. During their first two years in operation, Mr. Perry’s cameras led to the arrest of a whopping 26 people — that’s $154,000 per arrest. And once undocumented immigrants are apprehended, costs continue to mount: in this fiscal year alone, the federal government is budgeting $2 billion just for detention.
But there’s a bigger cost to my community. Claims about our supposedly dangerous border would be laughable if they didn’t damage our image and our ability to recruit talent, investment and events. El Paso is home to an emerging national research university, a new cutting-edge medical school, one of the nation’s largest military installations and a vibrant business community.
It is also an important trade corridor, and our busy land ports — through which $70 billion worth of commerce passed last year — are critical to the American economy. The factories across the Rio Grande provide products for the American homebuilding and automobile industries, as well as high-tech electronics.
None of that seems to matter, however, when El Paso is made the symbol of our supposedly broken border.
True, there are challenges along the border. We need jobs and investment, as well as improvements to the trade infrastructure on which our economy depends. While billions have been expended for walls, cameras and detention, we’ve seen little investment in our ports. During an era of shrinking budgets, our nation’s resources should be spent more wisely.
In El Paso, for every four Customs and Border Protection agent positions, there are three vacancies. As a result, commerce waits as trucks idle for hours in long lines. Such congestion frustrates business, and it certainly doesn’t make us safer or assist our economy.
A recent study commissioned by the Texas Department of Transportation warned that if our ports receive no investment, including additional personnel, El Paso’s economy will contract by $54 billion over the next 25 years, driving up unemployment and hurting trade. And what harms our economy harms the state and national economies.
While the one-dimensional security discussion continues, candidates continue to avoid dealing with the complex border reality. It would be in the candidates’ and the country’s best interest to present the truth about the cities on the border: we are safe, dynamic economic engines that need strategic investment.
So while candidates talk about getting tougher, border cities like mine will continue to talk about becoming smarter. Let’s just hope they join our conversation soon.