Borders, Migration Report From the Road: Borders and Boundaries with Beth Simmons Part 4

June 21, 2017
By Beth Simmons | Borders and Boundaries Project, Perry World House

Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Beth Simmons is the Andrea Mitchell University Professor in Law, Political Science, and Business Ethics, with joint appointments at the Penn Law School and within the Political Science department in the School of Arts and Sciences. She is a world-renowned expert on international relations and human rights. Her new project, Borders and Boundaries in World Politics, which is a part of Perry World House’s Global Innovation Program, is concerned with boundaries between organized human communities.

Borders and Boundaries seeks to understand the multiple significances of boundaries, including those designated as state authority, security buffers, expressions of social meaning, and opportunities for economic integration.   The Borders and Boundaries project hopes to contextualize border architecture, infrastructure, and institutions as expressions of social, political, and economic anxieties associated with globalization.  Dr. Simmons will teach a course this fall on Borders and Boundaries in International Relations, which will focus on these concepts.\

As part of this project, Dr. Simmons is spending time this summer on the US/Mexican border conducting research. Perry World House will share Dr. Simmons’s occasional field reports from the road  for the duration of her trip.

This was no ordinary day. Wednesday June 21 in the Eagle Pass/Del Rio region – the stretch of the Texas border between the Rio Grande Valley and the Big Bend. We spent the day traveling the 110-mile border of Val Verde County with Sheriff Jose Francisco (“Joe Frank”) Martinez, often climbing out of the patrol truck into the intense heat to see the sights.

Sheriff Martinez is a native of Val Verde County, having worked law enforcement from Eagle Pass to Del Rio. He has held the office of Sheriff of his county since 2009, having been reelected twice.  “More people should come to this county to see what it is really like – come see for themselves,” he told us, and to make sure that happened, he personally took us on an 8-hour patrol of his territory. His main message? “We have our crime problems, but it’s not a war zone.” Perhaps one reason is that, as the sheriff indicated, “law enforcement officers live on every street” of Del Rio. There had been only 21 murders in the entire county in 20 years. Sexual assault, about 4 per month, was the major violent crime in the area; practically no prostitution. Sheriff Martinez noted this was a region through which migrants from Mexico passed, but they did not stay. They were in search of opportunities well beyond the modest offerings of this border county.

The first stop was the River at the edge of the city of Del Rio. There was The Fence, built in 2006, which came to an abrupt barbed wire end. Camera mounted on the fence; border patrol on the dirt road just beyond. Sheriff Martinez turned his truck into nooks and crannies of the River we would not have had access to – his friends whose private property abutted the river.  We saw a swimmer? Someone fishing? The Sheriff zeroed in with his binoculars, waved acknowledgement, and the swimmer trudged back to the Mexican shore.

Law enforcement is totally different along the border than in other areas of the country. For one thing, when someone without proper documents is detained for an alleged infraction, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) arrive within minutes. “We have no dog in that fight,” said Sheriff Martinez of the well-known reluctance of local sheriffs and police to enforce US immigration law. No sanctuary county, this.

Ah, CBP. It is an interesting relationship between the Feds and local law enforcement in Val Verde, and, one suspects, all along the border. Overwhelmingly cooperative, yes. But Sheriff Martinez made it clear there were some issues, especially since local law enforcement were, well, local, and that CBP had less stake in the communities they patrolled. This led to some awkward and sometimes counterproductive relationships. CBP needed permission from local land owners to place towers and sensors along the border, but sometimes approached local landowners in a demanding way. CBP officers sometimes forgot to close cattle gates. Occasionally an immature CBP patrol thought it was entertaining to scare the horses or scatter a herd.

Trade with Mexico had an important impact on Del Rio and the surrounding area. Brisk commercial trade across the Del Rio-Cuidad Acuña International Bridge linked automotive parts manufacturing and steel smelting in Mexico with the US market. Though it was nothing like the volume that crossed at Laredo to the south, evidence of that trade was clear in the significant truck/trailer parking lots and warehouses clustered northwest of the city. What if NAFTA were renegotiated? “It would put a lot of people out of work around here,” Sheriff Martinez said.

Inevitably, our conversation turned to the need for a “wall” along the border. A big, concrete, physical wall? Nothing could be more unnecessary, according to the Sheriff. Our tour absolutely confirmed that. The terrain in most of the county is rough, rocky, steep, studded with cactus, lacking potable water, and with extreme summer temperatures. Nature’s wall is a stark physical reality.

“What we really need is better technology to create a virtual wall, with sensors, cameras, and other technology. We need towers to relay information. And especially we need more boots on the ground.”  (Remember: the Sheriff’s office is not just concerned about the 110 mile border, but with the safety of about 50,000 inhabitants scattered over 3,233 square miles). CBP already had sensors along the Rio Grande, of course. Likely we set a few off as we rode along and hopped out to view points of interest, which is why the CBP tended to show up along our path. CBP also manned a massive inspection station right along highway 90 south of Comstock – so big, in fact, that it could be seen from Mexico 10 miles away.

Val Verde has minor problems with border security, especially compared to the region we had just traversed – the Rio Grande Valley, from Laredo south. The crime and drug cartel problems in Mexico in that region had encouraged even more stringent law enforcement to concentrate efforts there. But quiet Val Verde could feel the consequences. “The more law enforcement pressure in that area, the more issues up here – like water seeking the path of least resistance.”  When enforcement is heightened in the RGV “I become the weak link.”

Lesson #4: Things are mostly under control in Val Verde. No concrete Wall is necessary, just tech and boots on the ground. With Martinez at the helm, the county seems in good law enforcement hands. Best burgers ever along 90 in the town of Comstock.