Texas' "border security" strategy is anything but conservative

Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre

Out of a more than $2 billion dollar total budget for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the state is poised to spend between about $500 million and $800 million on "border security." Whichever number the Legislature arrives at this year, it's money that would be better spent on items like education or health care rather than ill-defined "border security," which is not the primary responsibility of the agency or the state.

DPS's mission statement lists four goals: combat crime and terrorism, enhance highway and public safety, enhance statewide emergency management, and enhance public safety licensing and regulatory services.

Of the four, only three truly can be considered primary responsibilities of DPS. Highway and public safety is how most people know DPS — as the Highway Patrol. And, of course, issuing driver's licenses is one of the agency’s core public functions. But border security is a function of the federal government and local law enforcement, with DPS secondary.

Despite that fact, or perhaps because of it, we cannot at this point even measure the effectiveness of the state's expensive border operations, or how much they’ve helped ongoing federal and local efforts.

We need transparency and accountability. And before we commit future legislatures to continue down this path, we should at the least be able to explain clearly what the state has gotten for the $1 billion it has spent on "border security" since 2008.

Fiscally conservative budget writers should be asking the same questions. It’s even more concerning when, as the El Paso Times reported, a private company, working under a contract that has been the subject of investigation, developed talking points that state leadership has used to justify these questionable expenses. You may have heard elected officials using phrases like "border security is state security"; what you likely don't know is that those themes were developed as talking points several years ago by the private contractor ALIS.

It's worked. Negative views of the border have risen, and state general revenue funding for DPS has grown immensely — from $239 million in 2010-11 to an estimated $648 million in 2014-15 and a projected $1.9 billion in 2016-17. Meanwhile, federal funding for DPS grew from about $100 million in 2000-01 to a high of $1.64 billion in 2010-11, before dropping to a projected $539 million in 2016-17, according to the Legislative Budget Board. 

While the amount of federal funding isn't broken down by category of use, at least some of it presumably has been used for DPS "border security" efforts, illustrating the irony of state officials’ criticism that the federal government is failing to help the state secure the border. In fact, the current Senate budget notes that $38.8 million of the chamber's proposed $792.6 million appropriation for “border security” comes from the federal government.

That’s not conservative. It’s politics driving costly policy that is unattached to actual data.

Speaking of data, here are the facts:

  • Crime rates on the border are lower than the state average: Non-citizens of any immigration status make up only 8 percent of the state's prison population, compared with 11 percent of the state's total population. And the communities on the Texas border, home to 2.5 million people, have lower crime rates than the state average.
  • The federal government has stepped up. As of fiscal year 2012, the government was spending more money on border and immigration enforcement — $18 billion annually — than on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. The number of Border Patrol agents increased from about 4,000 in fiscal year 1993 to 21,000 in 2014. Meanwhile, apprehensions by the Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border have fallen drastically since 2000, from more than 1.6 million then to roughly 415,000 in 2013.

How the state — and for that matter the federal government — is dealing with "border security" is not conservative. It’s the very definition of throwing money at a ginned-up issue that has helped politicians win elections but serves no good public policy purpose. It obscures the real challenges, needs and opportunities of the Texas communities I represent.

José Rodríguez

State senator, D-El Paso