Fear Factor


On the morning of July 7, about a dozen protestors carrying American flags and wearing “Save Our Border” buttons gathered in a corner of Laredo’s San Agustín Plaza. Across the street, about a dozen protestors from the Rio Grande Valley carrying American flags and wearing United Farm Worker buttons, gathered in front of the Church of San Agustín.

Both groups had come to Laredo because of what was going on inside the La Posada Hotel that day—a hearing of the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation. Chaired by U.S. Representative Ed R. Royce of California, the hearing was a blend of political theater and crass opportunism, heightened by fears of all kinds: real, unreal, and surreal. As the morning went on and the temperature rose, the committee heard from a select group of witnesses including the acting chief of the Laredo sector of the border patrol, Reynaldo Garza; Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores; Zapata County Sheriff Sigifrido (“Sigi”) Gonzales; and an agent of the U.S. General Accounting Office who had once managed to smuggle radioactive material across the border without being detected. Throughout the day, representatives from both parties expounded on their own efforts to provide the Border Patrol and local law enforcement with manpower and technology.

Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) repeatedly questioned the jurisdiction of the subcommittee over matters of immigration. Ruben Hinojosa (D-McAllen) said that he was “troubled by the false promise of these hearings.” Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso, known as “Silver” to his congressional colleagues and a former Border Patrol Chief) addressed the cadre of Border Patrol officials with the air of a commanding officer. And Ted Poe (R-Houston), conflated increased violence along the border with terrorism, saying something to the effect of If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck. All in all, the gist of the Laredo hearing was more or less as follows:

After dark it gets western. It’s like a war zone. Border security equals national security. We’re worried about people who are camouflaging themselves as Mexicans. Have you ever heard of an Al Qaeda camp in Mexico? This is about politics. Do you really believe jihad terrorists would blend in with our Latino community? Is it about workers or is it about terrorism? There are terrorists in our own backyard … attempting to blend in with persons of Hispanic descent. Would it assist you in any way to deport 12 million people? Mexicans are not terrorists. What if smugglers become partners with terrorists? Terrorists want to destroy the institutions of the United States. What is it that you need in terms of manpower and technology?

The hearing was the second in a series announced last month by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert in a thinly disguised effort to stir up public opinion in favor of the House immigration bill passed in December, which criminalizes illegal immigrants and calls for the construction of a 700-mile border fence. Last May the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill—only slightly less draconian—which includes provisions for a guest worker program and a program of gradual legalization of illegal immigrants, as well as increased enforcement measures. Rather than meeting in conference committee to iron out the discrepancies between the two bills—as would normally be the case were this not such a highly charged political year and immigration such a highly charged subject—the House and Senate are currently engaged in a seemingly endless series of hearings, both in Washington, D.C., and “in the field.”

While Royce’s subcommittee met in San Diego on July 5, Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, held his own hearing in Philadelphia, during which New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg testified that immigrants are vital to the economy of his city. Since then the hearings have continued apace. Among them: a Senate hearing in Miami that focused on the contributions of immigrants to the military and a House hearing in Washington focused on the errors of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (one of the sponsors of which, House Republicans seem to ignore, was former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson—no slouch in the arch-conservative department. IRCA provided for amnesty, the word that dare not be uttered in the current immigration debate). The House has scheduled another border hearing for El Paso on August 17.

Although the hearings are public, the “public” has not been invited to testify—much to the dismay of some of those who traveled to the border. From time to time, however, the testimony in Laredo was met with bursts of applause and resounding boos from the audience, as occurred when Jackson Lee announced that “What America is best at is not scapegoating innocent human beings,” before proceeding to question the logic of a law that would “turn the Sisters of Mercy into felons,” a reference to provisions in the House bill that would criminalize organizations and individuals who assist illegal immigrants. The most vocal response, however, was directed at former Laredo Mayor Betty Flores. Ever the booster of her community, Flores said that Laredo was part of a thriving, growing metropolitan area with problems and promise just like any other, with one exception: It is not totally within the United States.

“Nuevo Laredo,” she said, “is like your Arlington, Virginia.” Her remark prompted guffaws from the folks in the audience sporting Save Our Border buttons—and not without some reason. (Newspapers on both sides of the border have given up on serious investigation of criminal cartels, following the killing of a reporter at El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo in 2004, and subsequent attacks against that newspaper. Then again, just days after the congressional delegation met in Laredo, newspapers in Britain announced: “Spate of killings spreads fear in U.S. capital,” in the wake of the fatal knifing of a British citizen in Washington, D.C.’s upscale Georgetown district and the robbery at gunpoint of two groups of tourists at the National Mall.)

By mid-afternoon, the sun was unbearably hot and the protestors in the plaza and in front of the church had disbanded. As the hearings wound down, Charlie Gonzalez (D-San Antonio) said he hoped at “we’ve made some progress to bring both sides together.” Jackson Lee was dubious. “We all know where this is going,” she said. What had happened in Laredo, she suggested, was “like throwing darts in the dark.”