Pubdate: Sun, 22 Oct 2006
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2006 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas
Author: Jay Root, Star-Telegram Austin Bureau
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Never mind that border security and immigration are supposed to be 
federal issues.

The candidates running for Texas governor this year are promising to 
do what Washington hasn't, or won't, on the longest stretch of the 
U.S.-Mexico border in the nation.

Their proposals range from the near militarization of South Texas to 
a throw-open-the-gates policy allowing people to come and go 
throughout North America just like they do in Western Europe.

Whether any one of the proposals makes it into law or even makes any 
sense, the prominence of the issues on the campaign trail highlights 
voter anxiety about illegal immigration, grisly drug violence and the 
possibility, even if it's remote, that foreign terrorists might 
exploit the porous border to stage attacks on the U.S.

Republican political consultant Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth said 
polling data consistently indicate that border security and 
immigration are among the top three concerns for Texas voters, and 
they expect action from government whether it's at the state or federal level.

"This issue has a presence not just along the border; it has a 
presence in all areas of Texas," Eppstein said. "It could play a 
determining role in the outcome of this election."

Drug Cartels

Texas, which has two-thirds of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, is 
a major transit point for the smugglers of illegal immigrants and drugs.

The lucrative trade has sparked bloody wars among drug cartels 
competing for control of the shipping routes, particularly in places 
like Laredo. Execution-style murders in Dallas, kidnappings of dozens 
of U.S. citizens along the border and large seizures of sophisticated 
weaponry, including bazookas, have been tied to the cartels, 
according to a recent report by the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security.

"The Texas-Mexico border region has been experiencing an alarming 
rise in the level of criminal cartel activity," it said. "The cartels 
operate along the border with military-grade weapons, technology and 
intelligence and their own respective paramilitary enforcers."

At the same time, poor immigrants, mostly from Mexico, continue to 
pour into Texas looking for work. In the first half of the decade, 
70,000 to 85,000 undocumented immigrants a year settled in Texas, 
boosting the illegal population to between 1.4 million and 1.6 
million, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Against that backdrop, President Bush, a former Texas governor 
himself, made comprehensive immigration reform his top domestic 
priority for his second term. But Congress deadlocked over what to do 
about the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and the employers 
who readily hire them.

Federal Foot-Dragging

The perception of federal foot-dragging has made Washington a 
convenient whipping post in the Texas governor's race -- even from 
the Republican who replaced Bush in the Governor's Mansion.

"Nothing threatens the future of this state more than the federal 
government's inability to protect the border," said Gov. Rick Perry, 
using one of his favorite applause lines during a recent campaign 
swing in the Texas Hill Country. "In Texas, we have waited for 
Washington to do the job, but we couldn't wait any longer."

Perry touts his Operation Rio Grande, which channels state law 
enforcement help and grants to border-county sheriffs, as the 
centerpiece of his proposal. The governor says he'll ask the state 
Legislature for another $100 million to fund the initiative for 
another two years.

The other top candidates have also focused on border security. 
Independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn says securing Texas ports should 
also be included, and she wants to enhance the role the Texas Rangers 
play in border security.

The other independent in the race, Kinky Friedman, vows to send 
10,000 more National Guard troops to South Texas. Unlike Perry and 
Strayhorn, Friedman and Democrat Chris Bell have laid out fairly 
detailed initiatives to address the issue beyond the border: Both 
propose penalizing Texas employers who hire illegal immigrants with 
stiff state fines and penalties, for example.

"We'll never make progress curbing illegal immigration unless we 
address the economic incentives that draw workers across the border," 
Bell says.

Strayhorn aides have said she does not favor state sanctions on 
businesses that hire illegals, but she told reporters Friday, without 
specifying how, that employers who do should face fines and prison. 
Perry has said he opposes using state laws to punish employers who 
hire illegals.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Libertarian James Werner. He 
favors all but the elimination of international boundaries.

"Anyone who wishes to come to the United States and work should be 
allowed to do so, with the exception of known criminals, or 
individuals with ties to criminal or terrorist organizations," Werner 
says. "History proves that we will prosper mightily by accepting new 
workers and citizens from around the globe."

Apart from expanding law enforcement and hitting employers, various 
state lawmakers are proposing to crack down on the illegal immigrants 

One measure would cut off state prenatal assistance to undocumented 
women. Another would reverse a 2001 law that allows certain illegal 
immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges.

Political Value

There is little doubt that addressing immigration and border security 
have political value. Republican pollster Mike Baselice said that 
they're not only important stand-alone issues, but that they also tie 
into other voter concerns, including taxes, healthcare costs, 
education and crime.

Perry, for one, says his proposals are producing more than catchy 
campaign sound bites. At a meeting of border sheriffs in Uvalde last 
week, Perry said South Texas has seen an "astonishing" drop in crime 
- -- an average 60 percent reduction borderwide -- when the joint state 
and local operations were under way.

However, neither the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition nor the 
governor's office could provide the raw numbers upon which the crime 
drop was based. In addition, the figures only counted unincorporated 
areas in 16 border counties. So while Operation Rio Grande may have 
caused a drop in rural Webb County, the city of Laredo, home to 90 
percent or more of the county's population, neither participated in 
the operation nor figured into the crime data cited by Perry. Same 
with Brownsville, El Paso and all the other South Texas 
municipalities, officials said.

"We didn't see a penny of that money," said Juan Rivera, spokesman 
for the Laredo Police Department.

"They should have included the cities. The majority of the population 
is in the cities. The majority of the activity is in the cities."

Meanwhile, some experts doubt whether even the best-intended state 
reforms and programs can do anything to stop massive illegal 
immigration, let alone take a bite out of the multibillion-dollar 
drug smuggling business.

Terry Nelson, a veteran federal law enforcement official who spent 
years in U.S. Border Patrol and customs agencies before retiring in 
Granbury, has participated in interdiction efforts resulting in tens 
of thousands of pounds of seized cocaine. None of it made the 
slightest bit of difference in the domestic consumption, price or 
availability of the drug, said Nelson, who favors drug legalization.

"When you arrest a drug dealer you just create a job opportunity," he 
said. "They're not going to run out of cocaine."

The Border Positions

Chris Bell (D): Opposes new walls along border, favors stiff 
penalties for employers who hire illegal workers and vows to lobby 
Congress to pass guest-worker legislation, allowing illegals to 
eventually earn citizenship by paying a fine and learning English.

Kinky Friedman (I): Says he would send 10,000 National Guard troops 
to border, require foreigners to get taxpayer ID cards and slap 
$25,000 and $50,000 fines on companies that hire undocumented workers.

Gov. Rick Perry (R): Slaps Washington for inaction, wants Texas to 
spend $100 million on border law enforcement. Opposes state sanctions 
on employers of undocumented workers and would keep law allowing 
in-state college tuition for otherwise qualified illegal immigrants.

Carole Keeton Strayhorn (I): Turn state homeland security over to the 
Texas Rangers, scrap law giving in-state tuition rates to illegal 
immigrants and pump $84 million into South Texas to improve 
infrastructure and fight poverty.

James Werner (Libertarian): Throw the borders open and let the free 
market do its will, but keep out criminals and terrorists while 
ensuring that no foreign worker receives public assistance.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman