SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – Starr County Judge Eloy Vera says the so-called “border surge” played havoc with the local economy because a lot of people stayed indoors and did not go to work or the stores.
Vera says he expects things to get worse now that the Texas Department of Public Safety will be getting 250 additional state troopers.
“Of the additional 250 troopers, I can guarantee you 200 will be positioned in Starr County. That is just not right. When our citations go up 200 percent and in the rest of the state it lowers 50 percent, something is not right and it is not fair,” Vera said.
The longtime county judge made his comments during a Q&A at panel discussion on the 84th legislative session hosted by the Texas Border Coalition on South Padre Island. On the panel were state Reps. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, and Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito. Guillen, who represents Starr County, concurred with much of what Vera had to say.
Vera started off his remarks by saying that nobody at the TBC event was opposed to securing the border with Mexico. “Definitely, we want to secure the border for our people, for our families and for the rest of the state and the country,” he said. However, Vera argued, Starr County was singled out for state trooper presence when then-Gov. Rick Perry implemented the border surge.
“We can’t go a quarter of a mile without seeing a DPS unit. I have spoken to some of them and they certainly don’t want to be here. I feel we don’t need them here. But, they are here today and now we are going to get additional 250 of them. I want to question the effectiveness of these people. I think they are totally ineffective. They are on the highway – they are not on the river. They just sit there, three or four units parked together, waiting for someone that they hope will be trafficking drugs or humans. But as far as them having any real intelligence, having any contact with our people, I do not think they have any of that.”
As a replacement for the border surge, state legislators this legislative session approved $800 million for border security with most of the money going to DPS. In effect, the funding will allow a permanent border surge to take place, only with law enforcement personnel replacing the National Guard.
Vera argued that the $800 million would have bene better spent had it been allocated to border sheriff’s offices, city police departments, and state game wardens, rather than DPS. “I think it would have had a tremendous effect, much more of an effect than bringing these people (DPS troopers) in for a couple of weeks at a time. I hope the troopers that are coming in will, hopefully, be stationed on the river not on the highway. I wonder if the money will be spent on equipping the troopers to work on the river. If you drive down the highway, most of them are not equipped to go down to the river. I think this is where they lose their effectiveness.”
Vera then cited his personal run-ins with state troopers. “I have a Ford pickup that has a grill on the front and I have been stopped six times because the guard blocks part of the license plate. I said that is the way it came from the dealership. I didn’t do anything to it. I said where do you want me to put it? You know it is this kind of harassment that we go through. In Starr County, unfortunately, a lot of our people are very humble, on low incomes and they are afraid to go out. Anything that is wrong or anything that is lacking and they are going get a citation. So, it has played havoc on our economy. People will not go out, they stay home. They might go out once a week to our stores. Everyone suffers.”
Another issue Vera brought up is the speed at which testing is done.
“The state needs another testing lab. Anytime they stop someone, whether it is the sheriff’s office or the police department, especially when it comes to synthetic marijuana, it has to be sent to be tested in order for a prosecution. The testing can take anywhere from six months to nine months before we get a result. That is ridiculous. In that time, the party that was arrested has to be let out. They pay a bond, they go out and if they know it is illegal, guess what happens, they go back to Mexico. We end up with nothing. It is a farce. We need the testing lab to be more receptive and more timely. It is really difficult for us to prosecute.”
Responding to Vera’s remarks, Rep. Guillen said that one of the points he made during discussion on the $800 million border security bill was that highway troopers and DPS do not have the same sort of relationship that game wardens and Border Patrol have with local landowners. He said game wardens and Border Patrol agents have relationships going back years and years.
“Game wardens and Border Patrol, their main functions require them to be on private property on the border near the river in many cases. They have longtime relationships with landowners that own land between the highway and the river. DPS, on the other hand, doesn’t. A highway trooper’s job is on the highway.”
Guillen said there was a bill filed during the legislative session that would have created another division within DPS that would have meant a Texas Border Patrol. “Many people did not like it. That was a whole other can of worms you would be creating. Had you created that it would have probably taken care of that gap in relationships that DPS has with landowners.”
Guillen said he does not see how DPS troopers can ever be effective in assisting Border Patrol if all they do is sit on the side of the road waiting for a traffic violation. “The job description of a highway trooper is to do what they are currently doing, which we don’t like. It is one of those difficult situations that did not get addressed, unfortunately. DPS, of course, wanted all the money for highway troopers. They got it. Of course, they have the authority to change the job description of a highway trooper. But, will they and how successful they will be with it? It is probably not going to be very good.”
Rep. Oliveira said it was “very clear that the border surge was not properly conceived.” He said there was not enough thought given to the plan. “It is not a function of DPS to do Border Patrol. Just as it is not a function of Border Patrol to do law enforcement. They are completely different things. It is going to continue to be a problem. But I think because of the heavy debate and the challenges that were made during the session, DPS will have to correct the situation. How much they do to correct the situation, we will wait and see.” Oliveira added that at least the Legislature had input with the $800 million border security bill, unlike the border surge, which was hatched by Gov. Perry and DPS Director Steve McCraw.
Earlier in the panel discussion, Rep. Guillen referenced the statistics that Judge Vera had quoted about Starr County getting a much greater increase in citations from DPS than any other county.
“The El Paso Times did an open records request of DPS and looked at citations given between 2012 and 2014 and citations in Starr County went up 233 percent. In Zapata County they went up 80 percent. In Hidalgo County they went up 20 percent. In other parts of the state they went down as much as 50 percent. Obviously we know what is going on,” Guillen said.
“I have complained a great deal to DPS and they did start to give a lot of warnings as opposed to citations. But still it is a great hassle to the folks that have to endure it. Obviously, it is only going to get worse. Right now, over the last year we have had the surge. They bring troopers down for a week and have a week in and a week out. What we are going to have now is a continuous surge. The surge was fully funded. And, part of the $800 million goes towards paying a 50-hour work week to every DPS trooper in the state so that when they come down, instead of having a 40-hour work week they will actually have ten more hours a week to be on the ground working while they are down here. We are also going to have 250 more full-time troopers.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series on border security. Click here to read Part One. Part Three will be posted later this week.