Debbie Brenzovich moved to Fort Hancock five years ago from Pennsylvania. About 40 miles from El Paso, this placid corner of Hudspeth County lies on Highway 20, where the land gives way to rolling cotton farms, decent fishing holes and sunsets only seen in the desert southwest.
All that breaks the blessed silence is the crackle of machine-gun fire some afternoons as drug cartel operatives fire off rounds just a few hundred yards away.
Brenzovich heard those blasts Easter Sunday, she says, and so did El Paso County sheriff’s deputies during her 911 call. It marked the first time, she says, that she’d heard gunfire on the U.S. side of the border. “Usually we hear it south of the border,” she said. “I was pretty shocked to hear it north, and it scared the hell out of me.”
Fresh from her scare, Brenzovich and a few dozen others in April joined U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, at a town hall meeting in Fort Hancock, where she decried the state and federal government’s lack of attention to the border. Rodriguez conceded that more attention could be paid, but that day his office fired off the first salvos of what has become a weeks-long war of words that Rodriguez and his congressional colleagues have launched against Gov. Rick Perry.
Rodriguez and four other U.S. House members have tired of Perry’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric about the federal government’s failure to secure the border. If he wants to pinpoint the problem, Perry should look in the mirror, they argue. Rodriguez and U.S. Reps. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso; Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; and Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, allege that as little as 3 percent of Texas’ federal dollars from the Homeland Security Grant Program has been apportioned to the Texas-Mexico border since 2006. Perry’s office, they say, dictates where that money goes.
“Texas has been awarded an average of $125 million a year over the last four years, with the border receiving as little as 3 percent of those funds each year. We believe border communities are not receiving their fair share of homeland security funding provided to Texas,” the congressmen wrote Perry in April.
Pressed later, the congressmen could not say where they came up with the 3 percent figure, which the governor blasted in a letter on Monday, saying they needed to check their math.
“When it comes to funding for border communities, the 3 percent calculation you cited in your letter for Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP) funds is incorrect. Between 2005 and 2009, 17 percent of the state’s HSGP funding has been dedicated to the border region,” Perry's letter read. Forty-five counties, the governor’s office added, have benefited from the monies, a fact that can be corroborated by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Perry pointed out that his office had received $624 million since 2005 and had directed about $105 million to the border. If that amount is not sufficient, Perry asserted, it’s because the federal government had tied his hands.
“As you know FEMA administers the HSGP, which is used to address terrorism prevention and support response and recovery efforts to all hazards throughout the state," Perry wrote. "Dedicating all of these grant funds to the border region would violate U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant criteria, which require the state to address the federal government’s 37 target capabilities.”
Though the delegation did not counter Perry’s figures, Rodriguez’s office did provide a smattering of county grant figures from 2006 and 2007 that the congressman maintains were too low. According to the county-by-county figures, hot spots on the border like the cities of El Paso and Laredo were awarded $433,661 and $221,460, respectively, in 2006. El Paso and Webb counties received an additional $85,000 and $28,750, respectively, according to Rodriguez’s calculations. That’s compared to the more than $5.3 million Harris County received and the $826,000 Dallas County was awarded. Hudspeth County, where Brenzovich confronted Rodriguez, was awarded $85,000 that year.
Last week the congressmen again called out Perry, saying he “has disputed some clear-cut facts about border security funding” — though they didn't specify the facts in question or offer evidence to counter the governor’s accounting — and urging the Government Accountability Office to conduct a review of the HSGP funding. At the same time, they showed signs of retreating to a let’s-all-just-get-along posture. There’s “no sense in elected officials bickering on this right now. We just need to start moving forward,” said Hinojosa aide Patricia Guillermo. Rodriguez, Cuellar and Ortiz issued similar statements saying they would work with Perry.
One area of common ground between the congressmen and the governor is Operation Stonegarden: They agree that the program, which funds law enforcement initiatives along the border, is essential to security. But while Rodriguez lauds his efforts to expand the initiative to $60 million, Perry, in his letter, pointed out that Texas only gets a quarter of that money. “Regarding the $60 million you referenced in your letter, Texas — a state that includes 64 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border, was allocated only 27 percent of that total. Texas deserves more from DHS,” the governor said.
While politicians bicker over accounting, credit and blame, Fort Hancock parents still fear for their students. Superintendent Jose Franco said that not only have his students’ family members been threatened, but “they have also been killed.”
“Up until about two or three weeks ago, our children were continually going to Mexico. There is more entertainment for them in Mexico, and they have their relatives living there,” he said. “[Now] we have families of 15 people living in a three-bedroom home” in Fort Hancock.
Then there is the Mexican state police officer who mans the lonely checkpoint that connects Fort Hancock to El Porvenir. Asked if he lived in the small town, he shook his head and said that instead he preferred life in one of the deadliest cities in the Americas.
“If I lived here, they’d kill me,” he said in Spanish. “I live in Juárez. It’s safer there.”