Why I welcome the National Guard to my town

Photo by Eric Gay

The only light was emanating from the campfire. Plumes of smoke rose through the air like birds in flight. The conversation that night at my uncle’s riverside ranch in Rio Grande City was lively.

Suddenly, out of the darkness appeared two men dressed in wet, tattered clothing. My father grabbed my shoulder and told me to stay back as he and my uncles approached the disoriented duo, offering them food and drink. After a few minutes, the ragged men retreated to a nearby tree to sit, looking more confused than ever. With the curiosity of a young boy, I asked my father to explain the encounter. He looked down at me and in a somber voice said that the two men were from Mexico and had just crossed the river. They were headed to Houston to seek work, he said. What the two men didn’t know was that they still had hundreds of miles left in their trek. With a dizzy wave, they stood up and walked away.

This incident, which occurred more than 40 years ago, is my first recollection of an encounter with immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally in my region of South Texas along the U.S.- Mexico border. But scenes like this are still as common as thorns on a prickly pear cactus. The backdrops might be different, but the lead actors in this sometimes-tragic story have always been undocumented immigrants from Mexico and points beyond rather unremarkably making their way through a porous border in search of a life of promise in the north.

Recently, the familiar fabric of illegal immigration was given a new wrinkle — an influx of Central American women and children, many of them drawn to our border by a false promise of a permit to reside here legally and a desire to reconnect with family. The influx has further strained our hardworking, understaffed U.S Border Patrol. The burden has also been shared in no small part by local law enforcement officers, who became the temporary caretakers of these families as they waited for Border Patrol to arrive and take over.

That’s why I welcome more border security to my town and region. We need all the help we can get.

From the early stages of the crisis, it became clear that Congress and the president could not agree on a solution. Although the shores and borders of this country are the responsibility of the federal government, state leaders in June took bold action to curtail the surge of immigrants flooding into the country. Dozens of Texas Department of Public Safety troopers converged on Rio Grande City. In Starr County, there were black-and-white DPS patrol units parked every three or four miles along U.S. Highway 83. For an added element of security, helicopters gave our South Texas clouds plenty of company. The results have been impressive, but security along the border can sometimes be as solid as melting ice.

That’s what led Gov. Rick Perry to announce last month that he would deploy the National Guard to our region. Yes, Border Patrol agents may have been better suited for such a task, but that would require Congress to do the unthinkable and agree on something.

At first glance this may seem unprecedented, but it is anything but. Under President Obama, the National Guard in 2012 spent a stint working alongside Border Patrol agents in South Texas. The only time I ever saw them was when they arrived, attended community events and departed. I found them to be adaptive, diligent and always respectful. I had several conversations with the Border Patrol agents who worked alongside them, and by all accounts the troops exemplified cooperation and a commitment to excellence.

The border crisis is really two crises in one. One is a humanitarian dilemma handled admirably by the city of McAllen and local charities. The other is the troubling truth that can no longer be denied: The border is dangerously insecure and open to criminal elements looking to harm our society. The lessons of 9/11 should not be forgotten. Our nation is at its best when law enforcement operates on high alert to protect its citizens. I for one am glad Perry opted for a solution rather than an excuse.

Medicine doesn’t always taste good but when taken as prescribed leads to better health. Until the federal government provides a long-term solution, I feel confident saying that the National Guard is good medicine for the woes of a weak, ailing border.

Ruben O. Villarreal

Mayor of Rio Grande City