San Antonio Express-News
November 27, 2009
by Gary Martin
WASHINGTON — After several years of fighting the U.S.-Mexico border fence, a coalition of Texas elected officials is working with the Obama administration on ways to improve border ports and facilitate trade while fighting drug smuggling.
The Texas Border Coalition's involvement with policymaking comes after a bitter tangle with the federal government over construction of the fence that Congress and the White House approved, but border business leaders and human rights groups opposed.
“We've got to work together,” said Chad Foster, Eagle Pass mayor and the coalition's chairman. “But that is where the wheels came off the cart — when there was legislation passed without any consultation.”
Coalition members are working with J.D. Salinas, the regional administrator for the U.S. General Services Administration and former Hidalgo County judge, on improvements to land ports of entry to enhance trade and bolster security.
It's not a new direction for the coalition, whose members first found strength in numbers more than a decade ago when they bonded to beat back legislative mandates from Austin and Washington.
The Texas Border Coalition was formed in 1998, with representatives from 10 border counties and 19 cities along the Rio Grande from Brownsville to El Paso, to lobby the state and federal governments for infrastructure improvements.
But that goal was derailed when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted Congress and the Bush administration to seek ways to shore up security along the Mexican border.
The coalition fought the resulting fence, but couldn't prevent its construction. Foster called it “false security for mid-America” that hindered legitimate trade and cultural ties between the two countries.
The coalition was also outspoken against a plan by Republican Gov. Rick Perry to put Texas Rangers along the border this year to protect property owners from Mexican smugglers and drug cartel violence.
The “Ranger Recon” plan, as it was dubbed, coincided with the challenge to Perry by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The coalition dismissed Perry's plan as electioneering, and told him so in a letter.
“While each of our communities has their own unique issues,” Foster wrote, “being overwhelmed by criminal elements from Mexico is not one of them.”
But the organization's biggest battle was the border fence.
The Secure Border Initiative was passed by Congress with overwhelming support. Hutchison and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, voted for the bill, as well as Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
Now, 670 miles of fence is under contract to be built, with 110 miles of it in Texas. Some portions in Texas still face legal challenges.
“We were against the fence act, but where some of the fence was built makes sense,” said Jose “Pepe” Aranda, Maverick County judge.
But this month, the coalition backed Democrats in Washington who rejected an appropriations amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., that would have provided funds for more pedestrian fencing.
Aranda said the real challenge on the border now is safety. He said working with federal and state leaders is the first step.
U.S. Customs officials and the Border Patrol are working with local elected leaders on the challenge of stopping drug trafficking.
Aranda said Operation Streamline, launched by the Bush administration to find and deport unauthorized immigrants with criminal backgrounds, is a successful federal program.
“We need to be realists and understand what we are up against on the border,” Aranda said. “Sending the Texas Rangers down to the border? That's not going to do anything.”
As the Texas Border Coalition looks toward goals for next year, efforts should be concentrated on Austin, he added.
“Bringing attention to the border at the federal level has been successful,” Aranda said. “Coming onto next year, we need a stronger focus on the state Legislature.”