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Troop Trauma

The expected deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to the border has angered border advocacy groups, which fear the militarization of their communities will damage the local economy and impact their way of life.

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The expected deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to the border has angered border advocacy groups, which fear the militarization of their communities will damage the local economy and negatively impact their way of life.

Border residents allege that elected officials in Washington are succumbing to political pressure. Despite the drug violence across the border in Mexico, they say, their communities are remarkably safe.  

“Proposals to deploy the National Guard are ill-conceived and motivated by electoral politics rather than border realities,” a coalition of advocacy groups complained on the eve of a planned protest in El Paso last week. “To be clear, there is no emergency at the border that would warrant the deployment of the National Guard. Immigration flows are down, and border cities are among the safest in the community.”

The rhetoric stands in stark contrast to that of Democratic members of Congress, who see President Obama’s decision — and the accompanying $500 million funding request for additional border resources — as a “good start.”

“We commend the President in making this supplemental request to augment federal, state, and local law enforcement working to secure the nation’s southern border,” U.S. Reps. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio; Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso; Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi; and Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, said in statement. (The same group minus Gonzalez recently launched a war of words at Gov. Rick Perry for failing to allocate federal monies that flow through is office to the border.)

It’s unclear how many of the 1,200 troops Obama activated will be assigned to Texas. Border advocates, however, point to crime statistics that paint the move as an egregious overreaction.

Despite the carnage in its sister city of Ciudad Juárez, where more than 3,600 people have died since the beginning of 2009, El Paso was recently dubbed one of the safest cities of its size in the United States. The city had 12 murders in 2009, compared to 17 in 2008, a drop of nearly 30 percent, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. By contrast, Memphis and Milwaukee, cities of similar size hundreds of miles away from the border, saw 132 and 72 murders in 2009, respectively.

Militarization, the advocates allege, will further hinder already ailing commerce and violate human rights. “Our economies are choked by inefficient border crossings, our civil rights are pushed aside and our quality of life is seriously diminished,” said the coalition, which includes the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, Harlingen-based Casa de Proyecto Libertad, Austin-based Freedom Ambassadors and the U.S–Mexico Border and Immigration Task Force.

Cuellar described the deployment as a somewhat run-of-the-mill practice and said something needed to be done. It’s only a temporary solution until the federal government provides more [border patrol agents]," he said. “The bottom line is that the National Guard has been doing counter-drug efforts for 21 years. They’ve been around for a while and I think people will understand that,” he said. “This is not militarization of the border. These are men and women that are part of our National Guard, our communities.”

But that “temporary” label isn’t sitting well with everyone. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has balked at Obama’s response to border unrest, thus far, argues that up to $2 billion is needed to prevent spillover violence. Cornyn cites the deaths of U.S. citizens and students from the University of Texas at El Paso as the most recent red flag — even though they occurred across the border in Juárez.

Obama’s deployment, he said, will only amount to one soldier for every ”1.6 miles of border.” His solution, which he filed in an unsuccessful amendment to the federal Supplemental Appropriations Act, called for four times more funding than Obama has proposed.

Less than a week after blasting Felipe Calderón for remarks he made concerning U.S. gun-control laws, Cornyn referenced the Mexican president’s analysis to justify his own budget request. “As President Calderón said when he was here, one of the problems his country has is guns going south, and we need more [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] agents to … enforce our own laws against bulk purchase and transfer to the hands of the drug cartels in Mexico,” he said.

The ATF announced last year that it is expanding its gunrunning task forces in McAllen and El Paso.

Cornyn’s amendment died on the Senate floor but did receive high marks from the Texas Border Coalition, which represents business leaders and mayors along the border. Though it often argues that the media and the federal government exaggerate border violence, the Border Coaltion supported Cornyn’s amendment — largely because of the $200 million it included for border technology improvements — and expressed remorse at the fate “political wrangling” handed it.

In its statement last week, the coalition said: “We are particularly appreciative of Sen. John Cornyn’s leadership to increase staffing at our nation’s land ports of entry on the southern border with Mexico — where most of the undocumented aliens and drugs enter the United States and where almost all of the firearms and cash leave America for Mexico.”

But the group’s support for Cornyn’s funding bill appears out of context with its position last year. “We are living through a human rights crisis in Mexico border communities," the former chair of the border coalition, Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, said at the time. “But President Obama is correct. This is not a problem we should solve by militarizing our border.”

As the jostling continues, some border communities are fighting a safety stigma, despite their dip in crime. Blasita Lopez, the director of the Laredo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said the city — which shares a border with Nuevo Laredo — is still trying to escape its national reputation of more than five years ago: as a gateway to crime. Like El Paso, Laredo's overall incidences of violent crime — including rape and aggravated assault — dipped in 2009, though murders increased to 17, compared with 10 in 2008.

“We are still trying to come back from that negative portrayal that’s out there right now and still dealing with people who have a huge fear factor and don’t truly understand that our community is a very safe,” Lopez said.

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