Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 5/26/2006 [Archive]

Securing the Texas Border Is Not Easy

All Not Quiet on the Southern Front

Interview with Steve McCraw, Texas' Director of Homeland Security

Waves of illegal immigrants are the least of Steve McCraw's problems. Texas has the longest border with Mexico, and McCraw, the state's director of homeland security, has the difficult job of trying to keep some very nasty criminals and potential terrorists from crossing it. Appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, McCraw, 52, is a former FBI intelligence expert who oversees state and local police resources that have been deployed to make Texas safer and help the U.S. Border Patrol. I talked to him Thursday by telephone from his offices in Austin:

Q: What is it you are supposed to be doing?

A: The focus, as the governor has laid out, is deterrence and prevention. This started in 2005 as part of a five-year strategic plan that identified that our most significant threat, the porous 1,240-mile Texas-Mexico border, didn't constitute just a national security threat but was a public safety threat as well. There has been an escalation over the years.

About a decade ago, the drug-trafficking organizations that pretty much dominated the cocaine and marijuana business have really evolved into extremely powerful and ruthless organized crime groups. The fact is, they control the northern Mexico border. This affects places like Pittsburgh. In fact, the governor has argued that what's on the Texas border and the southwest border affects the rest of the nation. Mexican drug-traffic organizations now dominate the lucrative U.S. drug market, also the human smuggling market, which is the national security side of things.

Q: So you're not concerned with illegal immigration?

A: First of all, what we are not dealing with is immigration policy. The position of the governor is that until we secure the border, immigration policy reforms, though very well-intentioned, will not be effective in the long run or even the short run. It's been said that, well, if you are able to address the demand for immigrant labor, that you've in fact increased the security of the border. Well, you really haven't. If you decrease the demand for labor, criminals and terrorists will still come through an insecure border. They're not motivated by jobs. What the governor wants to focus on are terrorists and criminals. But in order to do that you really have to focus on securing the border between the ports of entry. Until you do so, there is no homeland security.

Keep in mind -- and this is not any kind of rock-throwing at anybody back in Washington -- but this has been an under-investment for decades. But what's different now than decades ago is 9/11. We all know al-Qaida has intentions of exploiting the southwest border as a way of entering resources undetected into the United States ... . Middle Eastern countries have often used this as a corridor to get into the United States. You can't think of a place they haven't come from -- the Philippines, Saudi Arabia. Four Iraqis were captured the other day by Mexican officials. Syria -- who would think we are a pathway for Syria?

Q: Is it realistic to think that the Texas border can be closed and guarded?

A: You say 'closed.' We're not going to close legitimate commerce, OK. Nor do we care who comes through the ports of entry legitimately. It gives the U.S. government the opportunity to vet these people and use biometrics or whatever the case may be. But is it realistic? Certainly, you can accomplish anything if you have the will to do it. And certainly this nation can do anything it has the will to do.

Q: Does it make sense in your mind to do it?

A: The answer is yeah, of course. It's absolutely worth it. You can argue it from either way -- from a public safety or national security threat. As long as you allow criminals and terrorists unfettered access to this country, you're at risk. We just can't afford not to know or be in a position not to deter or disrupt their ability to move seamlessly into our society. Keep in mind, these Mexican organized crime groups are very good.They're very sophisticated. They couldn't be better financed. They employ former Mexican military commandos, former Guatemalan special forces, gangs -- MS-13, Texas Syndicate, Texas Mafia -- to do hits. They are extremely violent and as long as they have that pathway and control those points, there is a national security problem and a public safety problem as well.

Q: Is it a federal and state partnership?

A: It's a federal responsibility, OK. There's no question about it. (The feds are) responsible for protecting the sovereign border of the United States. But right now, they need help. It's going to take a while before they recruit, train and field additional Border Patrol. We're not going to see those resources for some time.Our men and women of the Border Patrol do a tremendous job and risk their lives night and day.

Q: If you could snap your fingers and get all the money you need to direct toward this problem, what would you do?

A: I'll tell you what the governor would do: invest in local and state law enforcement so they could be partners with the Border Patrol and increase our patrol presence at those high-threat areas between the ports of entry and also increase the capacity in the near-border counties.

You want to increasingly make it inhospitable for these crime organizations. People will argue that they will still try other areas. They'll try the Canadian border. But you don't know what event or major operation you're doing today that has prevented operatives from getting into the country undetected. We have an aggressive defense. There's no offense here. The offense has to be done by the government of Mexico. Until the government of Mexico regains control of those areas by taking out or dismantling those organized crime groups, we have no offensive capability. But we can have an aggressive defensive capability -- and we must.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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