The Republican Primary Border War Dance

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst on a DPS gunboat
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst on a DPS gunboat

When a normally buttoned-down Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst dons a bulletproof vest and poses next to a machine gun on the Rio Grande, it can only mean one thing—it’s Republican primary season.

For the four Republican candidates vying to occupy the state’s second-highest office, including incumbent Dewhurst, talking tough on border security is a tried and true campaign strategy. Waging war on the border might sway fickle Republican primary voters but it almost always alienates the majority of border residents.

Take for instance Dewhurst’s photo op on the Rio Grande in late September: While the 68-year-old Dewhurst posed for photographs on a Department of Public Safety armored gunboat, the agency was in the midst of its three-week “surge” along the border, called “Operation Strong Safety.” The surge featured DPS roving checkpoints throughout Hidalgo County, that created havoc in local communities. Businesses saw a reduction in customers, school attendance declined and local legislators received dozens of phone calls from panicked residents afraid that family members would be detained at the checkpoints and deported. “People are too afraid to go out,” Juanita Valdez-Cox, an immigrant advocate and executive director of La Union del Pueblo Entero, told the Observer at the time. “Many families here have mixed citizenship. The parents may not have documents but their children are U.S. citizens.”

After much public outcry by border residents and some legislators, DPS Director Steve McCraw said he wouldn’t conduct the checkpoints again without legislative authority. Still, two months later, Dewhurst praised Operation Strong Safety during a press conference and said the state should spend $60 million on a “continuous surge to substantially shut down our border.”

For his part, rival candidate Todd Staples has been beating the border war drum for years as Texas agriculture commissioner. In 2011, he commissioned two retired generals to do an $80,000 military assessment on security along the Texas-Mexico border. The generals referred to border cities in their report as a “sanitary tactical zone” where military operations can push back “narco-terrorists.” Another candidate, state Sen. Dan Patrick, has warned of “illegal invasions from Mexico” and pledged to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities. At least Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has taken a more nuanced approach. He’s all for armed soldiers at the border, but he’s also for armed citizens throughout the state. “The fact that many Texans feel comfortable with only police carrying guns isn’t normal, historically speaking,” he wrote in a recent editorial for the San Antonio Express-News.  “Armed citizens shouldn’t be alarming in a free society.”

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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Published at 3:07 pm CST