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Border Communities Unite to Head Off Militarization

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National Guard troops are on their way to the border and Republican South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint can’t wait to build himself a 700-mile double layered fence. DeMint has attached his amendment to just about anything moving through the Senate – so far Democrats have defeated DeMint’s attempts.

But what happens when elected officials get down to horse trading over immigration reform? It may not come this year, but it more than likely will come in 2011.  What happens when the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress need Republican votes to pass immigration reform?

Border residents already know the answer. They only have to look out their windows at the rusty 18-foot wall. “We’ll get the shaft,” is how one resident aptly summed it up.

Residents are already bracing to become the sacrificial lamb for Democrats desperate for Republican buy-in on immigration reform. They’re already seeing it with the 1,200 guard troops and a Predator Drone dispatched to El Paso.

Anticipating this backlash, border community organizations from across the southern border will meet in San Diego this month to strategize. Their goal is to come up with a unified platform of issues important to their communities, and to try and head off a raft of bad border security policies that will only make life on the border more insufferable.

“We’ve got to separate border security from immigration reform,” said Louie Gilot, director of  the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. “We need to have an independent voice for the well being of the communities and so the border isn’t sacrificed the next time immigration reform is taken up,” Gilot says.

Participants in the meeting will include the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium (CA), the Border Action Network (AZ), the ACLU Regional Center for Border Rights (NM) and the Border Network for Human Rights (TX) and Texas Rural Legal Aid (TX).

Gilot pointed out that El Paso, where she lives, is the second safest city in the country. This is the case for most border communities on the U.S. side of the border. Despite this fact, where she lives is depicted in the media and by politicians as a “war zone.” So the solutions that policy makers come up with for the border “would be more at home in a war zone,” she says.

“In my opinion what we have already at the border is working,” Gilot says. “The fear of spillover violence is very real but there hasn’t been any spillover violence.”

El Paso doesn’t need National Guard troops, she says. What it needs is more investment in the ports of entry so that goods and people can flow more securely and efficiently between Mexico and the United States. “People wait for hours to cross,” she says.

Border residents would also like to see better training for Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

In my opinion this is something that has needed to happen for a long time. The Texas Border Coalition, which consists of elected officials and business leaders has been advocating for border communities in Texas for the past four years or so. They even have the high powered lobby firm Via Novo working for them in D.C. in an effort to penetrate the D.C. bubble. They’ve had some success but it’s difficult to break through the panic inducing rhetoric in the national media and among D.C. politicians whenever they want to ratchet the fear level up a notch and turn out voters.

A more unified voice from the border is needed to temper the national rhetoric. Because right now, the rest of the nation forgets that the border is the United States too. They seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable for the federal government to seize thousands of acres of private land to build an ineffective fence.

And they also don’t have a problem with the notion of armed troops patrolling American streets. If it weren’t for the Posse Comitatus Act we’d probably have soldiers in the streets today. Soldiers on the border matter to residents because in 1997, 18-year old Esequiel Hernandez, of Redford, Texas,  was shot and killed by a U.S. soldier sent on a covert mission to patrol for drug smugglers. Every border resident knows it could happen again.

I remember getting on a plane in McAllen  a few years back and having to board under the scrutiny of a National Guard soldier holding a M-4 rifle.  It  was something you’d expect in a developing country but not in the United States.

Last year El Paso, with a population of 612,374 had 4 murders, while Washington D.C. with a smaller population of 591,833 had 66, according to 2009 FBI statistics.

D.C. officials need to dial down the fear and panic and listen to the people who actually live on the border. Then they might actually come up with a border policy that works.

In the meantime, let’s send the National Guard to D.C.. Sounds like they’ve got a real crime problem. And while we’re at it, let’s build a double layered, eighteen-foot wall around Senator DeMint’s luxury brownstone and see how he likes it.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.