Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal doesn’t mince words when it comes to the specter of National Guard troops soon descending upon his city as part of a controversial state-based border security initiative.
“Beggars can’t be choosers. I’ll take whatever help they can give me,” he said last week from Rio Grande City's tiny city hall. “They make a huge difference for me.”
The Republican city leader doesn’t give what he calls the “chamber of commerce” speech, like many politicians do, sugarcoating the dire reality of the situation on the border and the need for resources. His small city, he said, could use the additional manpower so that local officers can focus on the community instead of immigration concerns.
His is an uncommon sentiment in one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds. Democrats hold the majority of city, state and congressional seats in border districts from Starr to Cameron counties, the bookends of the Rio Grande Valley.
Many Democrats have called Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to deploy the National Guard little more than political theater. Critics argue that troops won’t help stem the tide of Central Americans who are surrendering to border officials after crossing the Rio Grande.
The money that the governor has tapped for the effort, about $38 million, should be spent to boost local or state resources, not on soldiers whose presence give outsiders the wrong impression — that the border is a lawless warzone.
Villarreal said a starting salary for a Rio Grande City police officer is about $32,000. But he doesn’t think the $38 million should instead be spent on more local officers — at least not in Rio Grande City.
“The ideal circumstance would be for the Border Patrol to come in and to give us the necessary security along the border. We’ve been ignored for many, many years,” he said.
The money shouldn’t be seen only as a local or state expenditure, Villarreal said.
“It’s $12 million [per month] divided by 330 million citizens and residents of the great country that we live in, so don’t fraction it out,” he said.
State Rep. Ryan Guillen, a Democrat who represents Rio Grande City, agrees that security should be a priority. But he worries that bringing in the National Guard could taint the area’s reputation.
“Safety is paramount, but militarization can be bad for business,” Guillen said in a statement. “It can scare off investment and tourism, and that jeopardizes jobs and our economy."
There are 19 patrol officers in Rio Grande City, where the population is about 14,000. Villarreal said the surge in Central American migrants can mean those officers are unable to respond to other community needs because of time spent apprehending, questioning and then transferring them to U.S. Border Patrol.
“If that happens four times a day, you are taking away most of his shift,” he said.
On those shifts, officers do everything from monitoring traffic to assisting the local fire department or pursuing a sizable pot bust.
No matter how many officers patrol the streets, illegal activity like drug and human smuggling won’t stop, said Lt. Jose Solis, a seven-year veteran and the department’s third in command.
“Wherever there is a will, there is a way,” Solis said after leaving a traffic stop where local Texas Department of Public Safety officers found hundreds of pounds of marijuana in a vehicle. “You can have a bunch of law enforcement presence here and they’re still going to try and get past us.”
Villarreal, who calls himself a “Reagan Republican,” shares some opinions in common with other elected officials in the region. He calls the border fence a “useless hunk of steel and concrete that we knew would serve no other purpose than to deface the community.” And he agreed that most undocumented immigrants breach the border illegally to work at jobs most Americans don't want.
But he warned that people should look beyond the unaccompanied minors and the pleas for compassion amid the current influx of migrants.
“The majority of them are 18 to 45 who are men coming here, mainly for jobs, but some of them maybe looking for something else,” he said, before recounting how his local police department apprehended a member of the notorious Salvadoran MS-13 gang just a couple of weeks ago.
Unlike a Mexican immigrant who is detained and deported and might try to cross again after a few days, Central Americans come from as far as 1,500 miles away and have to pay as much as $10,000. That means they are more determined to stay.
“They are more desperate,” he said. “When you hear people say that the border isn’t changing, I don’t know what part of the border [they mean].”
Villarreal also says the current DPS surge deters crime. When the surge was announced, some denounced it as a form of militarization. But the mayor said the city just needed some time to adapt to the presence of more state officers.
After just a few minutes on the streets of Rio Grande City, the ubiquity of law enforcement becomes obvious. Every mile or two, a familiar black-and-white squad car — locals call them “mapitas,” after the state-map decals on the doors — passes by.
There were no fewer than 18 troopers last week on a 40-mile stretch of state highway 83 between Rio Grande City and McAllen. A DPS spokeswoman said that in the first four weeks of the border surge, there had been a 51 percent decrease in the apprehension of undocumented immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley. Statistics on arrests, seizures and other alleged criminal activity have not been released.