ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Convinced that the border is out of control, Texas has become the first state in the nation to create its own border police force. That force has deployed boats on the Rio Grande, helicopters in the air and hundreds of black-and-white patrol cars on South Texas highways. Considering it's the U.S. Border Patrol that has statutory authority to patrol the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, are the state cops necessary? Well, NPR's John Burnett takes on that question in the first of two reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's getting crowded down here. On the Rio Grande these days, now you have gunboats from the Border Patrol, the Texas Highway Patrol and even the state game wardens. And if you're a cop, everything is suspicious, even personal watercraft. On a hot summer day, Chris Cabrera sits at a picnic table in Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas, and scowls at the jet skiers zipping around the river. He's president of the agents' union, the National Border Patrol Council, down here in the Rio Grande Valley.
CHRIS CABRERA: Those guys usually are smuggling right there. You know, those jet skis do a good job.
BURNETT: Oh, yeah?
CABRERA: Yeah. Either they're scouting for the DPS or the border patrol units, or they're bringing people across in ones or twos. It's crazy.
BURNETT: The craziness on the border is what prompted the DPS, the Texas Department of Public Safety, to launch Operation Strong Safety 14 months ago. That was when thousands of Central American kids and families were crossing the Rio Grande illegally. Then-Governor Rick Perry ordered his state police and state guard to the border to chase drug smugglers and human traffickers. He said the border patrol was being distracted by all the child immigrants. Perry is now running for president, based in part on his experience as a border commander-in-chief.
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RICK PERRY: Mr. President, if Washington won't secure the border, Texas will.
BURNETT: Yet, the Border Patrol tries to tell anyone willing to listen that overall apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants have been dropping steadily for 15 years, and the numbers of kids and families crossing the Rio Grande are half what they were last summer. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson spoke at the Baker Institute in Houston in June.
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JEH JOHNSON: Put simply, it's now much harder to cross our border illegally and evade capture than it used to be, and people know that.
BURNETT: You have to ask, with apprehensions of illegal crossers down and with smaller amounts of pot and coke being seized, is a lone-star border patrol really necessary? The U.S. Border Patrol declined to be interviewed for this report. Here's David Aguilar, who was chief of the Border Patrol from 2004 to 2010. Today, he's a principle at Global Security Innovative Strategies.
DAVID AGUILAR: Immediate border responsibility remains with the Border Patrol. And that does not mean necessarily excluding everybody else, but certainly working in coordination with the Border Patrol, allowing them to take the lead on border operations.
BURNETT: If you ask DPS if they've been effective on the border, they'll direct you to a webpage that shows their successes. You'll see lots of figures for pounds of illegal drugs confiscated and numbers of unauthorized immigrants detained, yet there's been plenty of criticism that the Department of Public Safety exaggerates the accomplishments of Operation Strong Safety. For instance, nowhere on the DPS webpage will you see that the impressive statistics are actually the result of state troopers working alongside the Border Patrol and local police. Last spring, Congressman Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, wrote to U.S. Customs Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske and asked him for his version of the numbers.
JOAQUIN CASTRO: He basically said that, you know, the successes and apprehensions were overwhelmingly due to the federal efforts. And he wasn't able to pinpoint what success the state had had.
BURNETT: But these questions did not deter the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature, which demanded more border security in the session that just ended. In June, Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed into law an $800 million border package that includes the hiring of 250 permanent troopers. An official video commemorates the event.
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GREG ABBOTT: We are here today to sign a comprehensive border security plan that will keep our state and our communities a safer place.
BURNETT: Officials with Texas DPS declined to speak on tape for this story. In a written response, a spokesman says the agency joined the fight against drug and human trafficking cartels at the direction of the Texas Legislature and Texas leaders. He added that the troopers work in coordination with - not independent of - federal border agents. Down on the river, the facts are clearer. The Rio Grande Valley remains the smuggling hotspot along the entire southern border, and Border Patrol union official Chris Cabrera says they can use all the help they can get.
CABRERA: You know, I don't think there's any room to fight over who caught this or caught that. I mean, the bottom line is the job's getting done, whether it's the guys in the tan uniforms or the border patrol.
BURNETT: Local police are also grateful for the saturation patrols. For instance, police chiefs say the troopers have contributed to a 90 percent recovery rate of stolen vehicles in McAllen and a sharp drop in high-speed pursuits of drug smugglers in neighboring Star County. South Texas citizens, however, may see it differently. Tomorrow morning on Weekend Edition, in our second report, some people on the border complain of an invasion by state police. John Burnett, NPR News, Mission, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.