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Beefed-Up Border Security Proposal Unsettles Texas Business Leaders


A tough border security bill introduced in Congress has produced a fierce backlash among business leaders and politicians in south Texas. They worry the bill's warlike border security measures send the wrong message to their valuable trading partners to the south. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the strong reaction represents a growing rift between Washington and the Rio Grande Valley.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: If it passes, the Secure Our Border First Act of 2015 would effectively put the Department of Homeland Security on a wartime footing in regard to the southern border, deploy more spy blimps, drones and ground sensors, build more fences, roads, boat ramps and forward operating bases, call in more National Guard, borrow air assets from the Department of Defense, divert military equipment headed home from Afghanistan. And if the Homeland Security secretary can't stop illegal crossers in five years, he cannot fly on government aircraft or get a raise. When Keith Patridge heard about it, he blanched. Once again, Washington doesn't get the border.

KEITH PATRIDGE: And what they're proposing with more walls and more military equipment is not what we would prefer to see.

BURNETT: As president of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, Patridge already has to convince prospective employers that South Texas is not a warzone. Former Governor Rick Perry's deployment of Guard troops, helicopters and gunboats to the Rio Grande on top of continuing news reports of drug trafficking and illegal immigration - all that has led to a national panic about the borderlands. Again, Keith Patridge.

PATRIDGE: We deal with it every day. When people call, they say - they maybe have an interest in locating here - they'll say, is it safe for us to come to McAllen? Well, that's absolutely ridiculous. You know, every day there are over 800,000 people that get up in the morning, go to work, come home at night, have dinner, go to a ballgame, and nothing happens.

BURNETT: Keith Patridge says FBI statistics consistently show that Texas border cities have among the lowest crime rates in the country. The bill's author is Texas Congressman Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. He formerly led a joint antiterrorism task force in the state, and he remains focused on what he believes is the southwest border's vulnerability to terrorists. He has been a leading critic of the Department of Homeland Security's border control under President Obama. McCaul spoke to Fox News.


CONGRESSMAN MICHAEL MCCAUL: We're going to take the discretion away from the Department, and we're going to mandate how they get this thing done through the deployment of assets from Afghanistan and other places to the southwest border.

BURNETT: One of the recommendations in the 72-page bill would be to increase barrier fencing in high-traffic areas along the border. The border wall, as it's called by locals, is already controversial in communities on both sides of the divide. Filemon Vela represents a portion of the Rio Grande Valley in Congress. He's also the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.

CONGRESSMAN FILEMON VELA: Mexico is one of our largest trading partners. It is the largest trading partners with the state of Texas. It doesn't make any sense to me that we would ever have built a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border given the relationship that we have with that country.

BURNETT: Passage of the divisive new border security bill is uncertain. The House GOP leadership sidelined earlier this week after some conservative members worried the bill would somehow lead to comprehensive immigration reform. Even though the legislation has been postponed, South Texans insist their voices be heard when Congress prescribes what should be done on the southern border. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.