Permit me a few observations on a topic that has become a political football – aggressively espoused by people who have little knowledge of what they are talking about, like President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
When I wangled my way back to El Paso for the second time in 1986, this time to run the El Paso Times, it was common knowledge that thousands of undocumented people were crossing the border illegally around Downtown El Paso.
Worse, thieves were stealing perhaps 100 cars a week. Ford F150 pickups topped the grand theft auto shopping list. The situation was such that people took to installing Lo-Jacks and similar devices in hopes of getting their vehicle back if stolen. Most were never recovered – probably parted out in Juárez and other places. Some occasionally wound up in the hands of police – like Joyce Shapleigh’s stolen suburban, spotted at a Chihuahua City police station.
Most of the crimes attributed to undocumented people of that era were non-violent, mostly petty theft and burglaries. But occasionally there were incidents that raised concern – like the car jackings on Paisano.
In hopes of providing additional security for employees and their vehicles back then, I put an unarmed security guard in the Times parking lot. That ended when a would-be car thief shot the parking lot guard. We debated whether to arm the next security guard but as I recall, corporate Gannett nixed the idea, worried about liability in a shootout.
The illegal crossings and car thefts slowed dramatically in September of 1993 when the then head of the local Border Patrol sector, Silvestre Reyes, stationed agents a few yards apart along a 20-mile stretch centered on Downtown El Paso. He called it “Operation Hold the Line.” It was controversial but the human wall was so effective, it was soon adopted in the San Ysidro (San Diego) area.
“When I got here, there was a chain-link fence that was installed in the 1970s, but you could cut it with wire cutters and people were coming through. It was chase and apprehend, and it was creating chaos,” Reyes said in a telephone conversation.
In fact, Hold the Line was so popular locally, it catapulted the former Border Patrol supervisor into becoming a eight-term congressman representing Texas’ 16th Congressional District.
“We went from apprehending about 10,000 people a month down to about 200. I think the El Paso PD said car thefts dropped by about 92 percent,” Reyes said.
He said that once illegal crossers realized they couldn’t get through near Downtown, they looked for outlying opportunities. But because the pressure was less on Downtown, “that enabled us to be able to shift resources to other places like Sunland Park.”
Since 2008, of course, we have had a brown 14-foot steel fence that many El Pasoans would hate to see removed.
Reyes, a Democratic Party loyalist, never used the word “wall” in our discussion but he made it pretty clear that at least in some areas, barriers, human or otherwise, can be very effective. But Reyes also said technology and manpower also are key components in providing security and the mix of options should be deployed where people on the line say they are needed.
Reyes also said he has been working quietly behind the scenes as a border security consultant and recently viewed a demonstration in Boston of a new technology that holds promise for detecting contraband at legal ports of entry, where it is said most of the illegal drugs come through.
Trump, in his State of the Union address, clearly exaggerated the violent crime threat in El Paso prior to the 2008 wall. El Paso has never been plagued by a lot of violent crime but clearly petty crime, car thefts and illegal immigration were out of control before Hold the Line and the border fence likely helped the Border Patrol maintain control. Nobody was ever cowering in their homes in El Paso worried about dangerous immigrants.
Mayor Dee Margo got it right in his recent interview with National Public Radio when he asked why we have not heard from the people actually providing security on their needs.
Trump and Pelosi, whose eyes glaze over when she hears the word “wall,” should back off and listen to the people on the line as to what they need, where they need it and what it will cost.
Clearly some kind of barrier, human, fence or otherwise, is necessary in certain areas, but that doesn’t mean a wall makes sense everywhere. Anyone who has floated the Rio Grande in Big Bend’s Santa Elena Canyon will tell you that putting a wall on top of those cliffs is silly.
Of course, the downside to anything but a physical barrier is that people are not stopped from entering illegally until after they are well into the United States. And that opens a litany of other issues concerning asylum that need to be resolved. But that’s another story.
Aerostats, sensors, barriers, cameras, trucks with body heat sensing arrays and boots on the ground, if used judiciously, will deter or help stop most people from entering illegally. But none of these measures will ever be 100 percent effective.
In a past life, I had an opportunity to work on both sides of the Berlin Wall. That barrier, horrible as it was with auto firing machine guns, barbed wire, electrified fencing, mines and border guards with shoot to kill orders failed to deter crossers.
Exact figures are disputed but some estimate that 5,000 people made it over, around and through the wall during the 28 years it stood. Sadly, some 289 people are known to have died attempting to cross, sometimes left to bleed out in the 100 meter strip of no-man’s land between East and West Berlin. Fortunately, the dramatic rhetoric has not yet reached that stage.