DPS Chief: Border Surge Wears on Officers, Resources

The multimillion-dollar influx of state police on the border is stemming the tide of illegal immigration, but parts of the operation are largely inefficient, the state’s top law enforcement officer told the House budget-writing committee.

Texas Department of Public Safety officers patrol Anzalduas Park as part of Operation Strong Safety. Texas National Guard soldiers deployed to the area on Monday will help DPS in its mission, officials said.

The multimillion-dollar influx of state police on the border is stemming the tide of illegal immigration, but parts of the operation are largely inefficient, the state’s top law enforcement officer told the House budget-writing committee on Wednesday.

Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Director Steve McCraw said the current practice of rotating the agency's officers in and out of the Rio Grande Valley, where a law enforcement surge has been in effect since the summer, wears on officers and state resources.

“We’re moving troopers and special agents from around the state and of course into areas where we’re not adequately staffed,” he said. “So you look at the cost in terms of travel and the cost of the time it takes to get them down there, a day down and a day back. Certainly we can be effective in that regard, but it’s inefficient.”

DPS officers aren't the only ones on the border; National Guard troops have been there since the summer, too. The long-term effects of that deployment also drew reactions on Wednesday from lawmakers who questioned whether the state’s money is being well spent.

Guard troops were deployed to assist DPS; they are scheduled to leave next month. Maj. Gen. John F. Nichols said at Wednesday's House Appropriations Committee meeting that 200 soldiers are currently active in the Rio Grande Valley, funded through March at a cost of $2.5 million a month. At one point during the summer, as many as 1,000 guard soldiers were on the border. 

The hearing came a day after the House and Senate appeared at odds over extending the National Guard’s role on the border. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, proposed spending an additional $12 million to extend the guard's stay through May, then fund additional deployments for the next two years. In a statement, House Speaker Joe Straus said that decision was ultimately one for Gov. Greg Abbott to make.

Others, including House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, expressed some concerns with a long-term deployment.

“If you were asked to deploy for a year, what effect would that have on morale of the people that serve in the guard, knowing that some of their employers do not cover their compensation when they’re gone?” he asked. “I've got to believe it’s got an impact. Do you believe it would have an impact?”

“Yes, sir, but we’re going to serve," Nichols responded. "But what I would ask, humbly, would be predictability, because you take a service member, a citizen, and say, ‘Go out for 30 days. It might be 60, no, it’s going to be 45 now.' I would just request predictability so that I can say, ‘Can you go for a year? Can you do it?'”

Nichols noted that federal law protects the guard soldiers against retaliation or termination in the workplace if they are deployed for extended periods of time.

After the committee meeting, Nichols told reporters that he wouldn’t speculate about what will happen after next month.

“We’ve been advised that [state leadership] is thinking about new options,” he said. “But I am not prepared to get out front of the governor” on what his decision might be.

At Wednesday's hearing, House lawmakers expressed frustration over how success on the border was being measured. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said one report suggests that fewer apprehensions are a sign of success while another discredits it.

And border Democrats pushed back against what they say is an unfair characterization of the border as a violent war zone. 

When asked by state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, whether the Rio Grande Valley was safe, McCraw said, “For the most part, it is.”

McCraw added that residents should take precautions and “protect their kids” from falling prey to drug cartel operatives.

Toward the end of the hearing, state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, asked members to “take a step” back and see the situation on the border for what it is: a humanitarian crisis.

Walle, an attorney, said that most of the unaccompanied minors who have turned themselves over to the U.S. Border Patrol or DPS were fleeing poverty, violence or death. He has represented about a half dozen such children, he said, and has secured a visa for two.

“If anyone would hear their stories, there would not be a dry eye in this room,” he said.

McCraw said the agency was more concerned with the smugglers who manipulate children than the kids themselves.

“We're not focused on unaccompanied minors,” he said. “Our focus is on transnational gangs.”

DPS has recommended that state budget writers allocate about $25 million for local law enforcement efforts, McCraw said.