Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – All five Republican candidates for governor in New Mexico have pledged to boost border security.
But each is also making the case that he or she is uniquely well-suited to take on the issue, as GOP voters prepare to choose a nominee.
The candidates’ ideas range from deploying the New Mexico National Guard – broadly supported by the GOP field – to a mix of individual ideas that include investments in roads and broadband, a standalone border agency and a 150-person strike force in the Department of Public Safety.
The debate comes as law enforcement encounters with migrants trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States jumped 33% in March compared with the previous month, according to federal data for the entire Southwest border. Increased migration is also expected in late May, as a federal order restricting asylum, which Republicans have seized on in a key election year, expires.
For New Mexico, the border is also an economic strength. State exports hit a record high of $5.4 billion last year, driven largely by activity around the Santa Teresa port of entry.
Much of the Republican campaigning has focused on connecting border security to New Mexico’s broader debate over crime and public safety.
State Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences said the U.S. Border Patrol has an infrastructure wish list that New Mexico could support by tapping into its budget surplus. The state, she said, could help pay for fiber optic cables needed for electronic surveillance, and contribute to the cost of roads and access points used by the Border Patrol.
Criminals “are bringing drugs across our border or engaged in human trafficking, and it has to stop,” Dow said in an interview. “Border security is national security.”
Mark Ronchetti, a former meteorologist at KRQE, a CBS affiliate, said he has spoken with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and other public safety officials about what’s worked – and what hasn’t – in their states.
He is proposing a 150-person strike force of law enforcement agents in New Mexico focused on fighting drug and human trafficking. He envisions increased traffic stops and vehicle inspections, in addition to the deployment of drones and K-9 units.
“We’re going to create the most highly trained force possible,” Ronchetti said.
Both Dow and Ronchetti have launched television campaign ads focused on the border, but they are not the only candidates talking about the issue.
Jay Block, a Sandoval County commissioner and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, has proposed a new border security agency, and Greg Zanetti, a West Point graduate and financial adviser, has touted his service as a brigadier general in the Army National Guard.
The Republican candidates also aim criticism at Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who’s seeking reelection this year.
Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman, withdrew most of the state’s National Guard troops from the border in 2019 after she took office. She said then that she doesn’t oppose investments in border security, but that it was inappropriate for the state to “militarize our border.”
In a written statement Friday, a campaign spokeswoman said Lujan Grisham has approved over $31 million to improve public safety in border counties, including upgrades to surveillance and communication systems that facilitate collaboration between local and federal law enforcement.
The governor “has worked with southern New Mexico communities to ensure they are safe and thriving places to live,” spokeswoman Kendall Witmer said.
Four of the five Republican candidates – all but Ethel Maharg, who was not available for a Journal interview – expressed support for deploying the National Guard to support federal immigration authorities. New Mexico has a 180-mile border with Mexico.
Federal law limits military involvement in law enforcement, but the Republican candidates say the guard can be used to free up Border Patrol agents to focus on immigration.
In 2018, for example, National Guard troops sent to the border by then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, helped with vehicle maintenance, caring for horses used by Border Patrol agents, and surveillance.
“I will ask the Border Patrol what skills … they want the guard to bring to them,” Block said.
Zanetti, who served in the guard, said troops can serve as a “force multiplier” to help federal agencies, but careful coordination is required.
“There’s more complexity to this than you think,” he said. Dow and Ronchetti say they, too, see a role for the National Guard at the border.
Opponents of a guard deployment say it would damage the morale of guard members, who aren’t trained on immigration enforcement.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico described the idea as a “wasteful and unnecessary misuse of resources” at a time when New Mexicans need investments in infrastructure, economic opportunities and social services.
“Many of the people coming to our southern border are there to legally request asylum,” Nayomi Valdez of the ACLU of New Mexico said, “and living up to our American values means greeting them with dignity, not the barrel of a gun.”
The deployments, she said, also escalate tensions in peaceful communities.
Witmer, the Lujan Grisham campaign spokeswoman, said the governor has taken a holistic approach to the border by working with business to grow southern New Mexico’s economy, and investing in behavioral health and addiction programs.
“Governor Lujan Grisham is focused on delivering for New Mexicans and their families, not co-opting false solutions from other states,” Witmer said.
In a series of Journal interviews, the Republican candidates outlined their own strategies for bolstering border security and explained why they believe they’re the best choice to address the issue:
• Block said he would establish a new border security agency modeled on similar efforts in Arizona and Texas.
“This is a law enforcement organization that is going to be focused strictly on the border,” he said.
More broadly, he said, he looks at the border through the lens of a “pro-life candidate,” given the number of people dying as they try to come into the U.S.
The arrival of fentanyl through the border, he said, is particularly personal.
“My mother had a very bad drug issue,” he said. “I don’t want other families to go through what I went through. I’m very sensitive to how this affects families.”
• Zanetti said he has an “adult” view of the border that goes beyond 30-second sound bites offered by rivals.
As a retired brigadier general, he said, he knows first hand the practical questions that must be answered before deploying troops to the border.
His military service, he said, took him to borders in Europe, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and the U.S. boundary with Mexico.
“If you want a governor who understands how to secure the border without draining the treasury,” Zanetti said, “you might want a governor who was a brigadier general in the New Mexico National Guard, who’s worked the border before, our border – and a governor who understands money.”
• Ronchetti said he has spoken with the Arizona governor and other officials about practical steps a state can take to bolster border security.
His plans call for establishing a strike force with 150 agents in the Department of Public Safety, akin to a new arm of the State Police.
The group would focus on drug and human trafficking, he said, especially combatting the flow of fentanyl.
State drones and K-9s, he said, can help fill in gaps in border security.
“Border security is personal security in your home because of the drug trade,” Ronchetti said.
Traffic stops, he said, would be coordinated to avoid disrupting legal trade with Mexico.
• Dow, a member of the state House since 2017, said she is the only candidate who represents a district close to the border, giving her practical insight into the needs of local and federal law enforcement.
“I will follow the lead of our Border Patrol agents, and our county and local law enforcement,” she said.
With a surplus and record-high state budget, Dow said, New Mexico is well-positioned to help pay for capital projects that would help the Border Patrol focus on its core mission without interfering with legal commerce.
The state, she said, could aid federal agents by helping to fund fiber optic lines that support electronic surveillance, and building or improving roads needed by law enforcement in the border region.
The primary election is June 7 and absentee balloting begins May 10.