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Letters Highlight Local Tension Over Increased Border Security

A coalition of ranchers and business owners from South Texas is pushing back against border officials who have criticized the build-up of law enforcement on the Rio Grande.

A Customs and Border Protection vehicle patrols on the Texas border near the Rio Grande, Thursday, July 24, 2014, in Mission, Texas. Texas is spending $1.3 million a week for a bigger DPS presence along the border.

A coalition of ranchers and business owners from South Texas is pushing back against border officials who have criticized the build-up of law enforcement on the Rio Grande.

In letters to Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas and McAllen Chamber of Commerce President Steve Ahlenius dated Tuesday, the South Texans' Property Rights Association, which boasts more than 600 members who own or are responsible for more than 5 million acres of property, said its members have been overrun since 2006 by criminal gangs and smugglers.

“We now live in fear for our families, workers and guests,” wrote Susan J. Kibbe, the association's executive director. “We have suffered profit losses due to property damage that consists of frequent fence and gate repair and replacement, cattle sale losses; crop and property damage, theft; and fear of reprisals from cartel and transnational criminal organizations.”

The letters were sent in response to comments from Salinas, who recently told Quorum Report that proponents of beefed-up law enforcement on the border needed a “wake-up call,” citing the city’s low crime rate. The Texas National Guard is expected to arrive in the Rio Grande Valley later this month in response to a surge of illegal crossings that has overwhelmed the U.S. Border Patrol. 

The publication also reported that Ahlenius wrote Gov. Rick Perry last month to say that the deployment of the National Guard to the area "sends the wrong image" to would-be investors, specifically manufacturing companies eyeing the border region as a possible expansion site.

Salinas is in the final year of his second term. He was first elected in 2006 and has made portraying Laredo as a safe city a staple of his leadership. He has repeatedly said his city is unfairly portrayed as a war zone because of cartel violence in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, just across the Rio Grande.

Salinas and Ahlenius declined to comment on the association's letter. 

Kibbe said her group is appreciative of the leaders’ efforts to recruit businesses and industry to Texas. She said she didn't quibble with crime statistics but added that several of her group's members have simply chosen to leave their lands. She urged Salinas and Ahlenius to work with the association and agree to support state-based enforcement.

“We are no longer able to enjoy the use of our land, and many landowners have given up and moved their families into town or have sold out completely,” she wrote.

Kibbe noted that since the Texas Department of Public Safety began its surge in border operations, there has been a measurable drop in trespassers on private property. The DPS has been involved in a weeks-long build up authorized in June by the offices of House Speaker Joe Straus, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry. The DPS said last week that in the first four weeks of the operation, there was a 51 percent decrease in illegal crossers. Additional data has not been released.

While South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley are the epicenters of the border-surge controversy, ripples are being felt hundreds of miles away in West Texas.

On Tuesday, the Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based immigrant rights coalition that lobbies for comprehensive immigration reform, announced an upcoming 100-mile walk to denounce what it calls the militarization of the border. Members will trek from New Mexico to far east El Paso County over several days in what is also a show of solidarity for the tens of thousands of Central American migrants who have been apprehended on the border. The group’s leader said it doesn’t matter if El Paso is not the center of the crisis.

“This is part of Texas. They are using that money, our money, to pay for [the border surge],” said the coalition's executive director, Fernando Garcia. “We are also connected because we have family members there in that region. Our organizations are connected.” 

Garcia said it is possible that law enforcement operations could expand to include El Paso.

“We want to prevent that, and we want to denounce the political decision to send the National Guard,” he said.

The participants will include Mitzi, Nitza and Deisy Alvarado, sisters from Chihuahua who are seeking asylum after the Mexican military allegedly kidnapped their mother more than three years ago.

“They are symbolizing the [Central American] asylum seekers,” Garcia said. “We are treating asylum seekers as criminals. It is a catastrophe.”

The march begins on Thursday at the office of U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, and ends in El Paso on Sunday at the Laura Aguilar Human Rights Center.

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