Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
After ranchers came out in force last week to voice concerns about border security, New Mexico’s political representatives in Washington say they are pushing for changes in strategy on everything from patrols to hiring, and deploying more boots on the border.
The New Mexico delegation is proposing, by turn, changes in hiring procedure that could attract more locals to Border Patrol ranks; hardship pay for agents who agree to work the remote region; more horses to get mounted agents into rugged terrain beyond the reach of pickups and ATVs; and putting more agents on the borderline, not dozens of miles inland.
One proposal would also shift more National Guard drug interdiction resources to the New Mexico border. “We think they got the message,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. “I think the jury is still out on how we move forward. I think we stirred some attention, but it is way too soon to see if we will get what we need.”
The U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico’s Bootheel runs east from the Arizona state line, then turns north – 86 miles of border and hundreds of square miles of
inhospitable, mountainous desert country where drug traffickers have lately found a profitable route north.
The ranchers’ meeting in Animas last week drew more than 600 people, many worried about what they say is an increase in illegal traffic at the border. They packed the tiny town’s school auditorium to voice their concerns.
Border Patrol and the Hidalgo County sheriff have confirmed break-ins in the area as well as an increase in the presence of drug mules – men carrying backpacks of dope on foot from Mexico – and traffickers in vehicles heading north toward Interstate 10, their sights set on lucrative drug markets throughout the U.S.
In December, a ranch hand working in the Bootheel allegedly was kidnapped by drug runners who hijacked his work truck, loaded it with dope and drove him and the load to Arizona. The FBI is investigating the incident.
In a statement to the Journal, Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, said he has heard concerns from ranchers and also from the Border Patrol, “who need more staff and resources – including incentives to help retain agents at the Lordsburg station and additional horses, ATVs and other equipment appropriate for patrolling in very remote, rugged territory.”
He also said, “I believe that we need the National Guard’s assets and expertise as force multipliers to help Border Patrol cover more of this rugged, rural area. More needs to be done. Everyone deserves to feel secure in their home, and the men and women who patrol our border deserve the equipment and resources they need to keep our border safe.”
Congress provides funding for the National Guard to assist communities with drug interdiction. Brig. Gen. Andrew Salas told the Journal last week that the Guard stands ready to direct more of its resources to New Mexico’s southern border.
Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican who represents southern New Mexico, told the Journal that the Border Patrol should let prospective agents serve in communities where they grew up and allow agents to stay put for years, instead of rotating them through different sectors.
Border Patrol’s Lordsburg station, which is tasked with securing the Bootheel, has been chronically understaffed.
“One of the things they face is the agents transfer in, they transfer out,” Pearce said. “Why don’t they allow agents to opt in for six, eight, nine years? Those are questions that we are asking of agency management.”
Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero said agents may serve in their hometowns and stay as long as they want, but the remote region has proved unattractive to agents with families who want options for education, health care and amenities. Earning promotions often requires transferring to new sectors, as well, he said.
“From our discussions with Border Patrol and local residents, it is clear that we need to invest more in retention incentives and specialty units in order to forward deploy more agents where they are needed most,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Heinrich said that the failed 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill would have multiplied investment in border security, including $8 billion for additional fencing and $30 billion to add 20,000 Border Patrol agents and more than double the force – which would have meant “an agent for every 1,000 feet of border,” he said.
Heinrich and Udall voted for the bill, which passed with bipartisan support in the Senate. The legislation would also have provided legal status to 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. It faced a backlash in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and never came to a vote; Pearce opposed it.
Pearce said agents need to be better deployed closer to the borderline, one of the ranchers’ key demands.
“You must get the boots down on the border,” he said. “This idea of patrolling 60 to 70 miles off the border is one that simply says that if you live between where we put our vehicles and the border, then you are expendable. We had to contend with the Bush administration on this, as much as the Obama administration. That is an ongoing, long battle that we are in.”