MISSION — This week at Anzalduas Park, which sits on the banks of the Rio Grande, a Texas Department of Public Safety boat patrolled the calm waters just feet away from the Mexican side of the river. Families picnicked near a parked school bus and listened to Spanish-language radio, not paying attention to the seven-person patrol as it powered through the water in a vessel with machine gun turrets.
At the park, where U.S. Border Patrol officers and local sheriff’s deputies are also a common sight, Hidalgo County Constable Lazaro Gallardo Jr. said the recent arrival of hundreds of National Guard troops on the Texas-Mexico border would add to the overwhelming police presence. He said the troops might temporarily slow illegal traffic across the border but that he wouldn’t be surprised if the traffic began to surge again. Smugglers can only wait so long before they are pressured to make more money, he said.
“They’re watching us as we speak,” he said of smugglers as he looked across the water toward Mexico. “They’re waiting. They have all the time in the world. We’re very vulnerable here.”
Since Gov. Rick Perry announced last month that he was deploying as many as 1,000 National Guard troops to the border in response to a surge of undocumented Central American immigrants illegally breaching the border, Texas border residents have been awaiting the troops’ arrival with a mixture of hope and concern. Now that the troops are starting to arrive, the move is drawing praise by some who say the state is taking the lead in securing the border while the federal government falls flat in its mission. But others say the deployment is overkill and hampers the local economy.
A spokeswoman for the Texas Army National Guard confirmed this week that hundreds of troops have arrived in the area, but she did not reveal details about their operation or how long the deployment will last.
Tom Vinger, a Department of Public Safety spokesman, said the troops will deploy to areas on the edge of the Rio Grande and to observation posts. They will work in conjunction with state and local law enforcement, he said.
"When conditions warrant and they encounter individuals committing crimes, those law enforcement officers may take the appropriate law enforcement action at that time, including making arrests," Vinger said.
Some state lawmakers have questioned Perry’s decision to spend $38 million to pay for the deployment, which the governor said was needed to combat a “crisis” of drug cartel activity and human trafficking. That money is in addition to the $1.3 million a week that the Department of Public Safety has estimated it was already spending to pay for troopers and resources sent to deal with this year’s immigration surge.
In July, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended about 5,500 unaccompanied children on the southwest border. That is compared with about 10,600 in May and June. More than 46,300 unaccompanied children have been apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley, and more than 48,100 families have been apprehended since October, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics.
Perry has drawn criticism from the Mexican government for saying that terrorists could use the southern border to enter the United States.
“I am not saying it is a threat now,” said Gallardo, a Democrat. “But it could be a threat.”
And Hidalgo County Republican Party Chairman Sergio Sanchez said that too few undocumented immigrants who cross the border are caught.
“If the federal government isn’t going to do its job, what other option does Texas have?” he asked.
But Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chairman Ric Godinez said the deployment is like giving a person an enema for a cold.
“I hate to break it down that way,” he said. “But some Republicans and Democrats think it’s overkill. “
Local officials, he added, were not kept in the loop about the mission and what it hopes to accomplish.
Godinez said cartels' smuggling is nothing new to the area and law enforcement has been able to handle it and keep the region one of the safest in the state. The only thing that has changed, he said, is the media attention the area is getting.
Godinez added that the influx of troops will hamper a regional economy slowly recovering from a recession. Winter Texans — visitors from the Midwest and Canada who migrate to the Rio Grande Valley each year to avoid harsh weather — will stay away, he argued.
But Johnny Hart, 59, the owner and operator of the Riverside Club, a bar and restaurant that also provides boat tours on the Rio Grande, isn't worried. He calls his patrons — some of whom take photos of undocumented immigrants during boats tours — loyal and patriotic.
"And they're 100 percent smarter than any politician," he said.
He is fine with the deployment, though he thinks it's politically motivated. And he said that when violence does occur near his operation, it's a "rogue" incident.
Others have concerns about the additional troops. As Bilar Navarro, 60, sat fishing Tuesday in Anzalduas Park, DPS gun boats waded just a few hundred feet away. He is fine with more DPS troopers and U.S. Border Patrol agents. But Navarro, a Vietnam War veteran, said the National Guard is too much.
"I have been coming here for years and years," he said. "It's the first time [the government] has made a big deal about smuggling. Soon, [law enforcement] is going to be stopping everyone for no reason."