A group of Republican House members led by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas takes… (Gabe Hernandez / The Monitor )
McALLEN, Texas — When Rep. Leonard Lance, a Republican from New Jersey, toured the U.S. border with Mexico last week, he saw more than 20-foot-high barricades outside San Diego, a surveillance drone base in Arizona and patrol boats on the Rio Grande in Texas.
Lance also spotted a body floating in the tall Spanish cane in an elbow of the Rio Grande. Border Patrol agents told him the man may have drowned trying to swim across from Mexico, or may have been killed by cartel members in a drug deal gone bad.
"To see a dead body right here," Lance said, "is a dramatic indication that we have to do a better job" on border security.
With a Senate immigration bill approved and the GOP-controlled House starting to review a separate array of proposals, Lance joined five other Republican lawmakers on a three-day trip to the Southwest border. At stop after stop, they posed for pictures and called for more guns, guards, drones and other efforts to stop illegal immigration.
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"We have a real opportunity … to finally get control of this very insecure border," said Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who leads the House Homeland Security Committee, after he rode a patrol boat armed with two automatic machine guns mounted on swivels.
Yet the danger here is hardly so clear-cut. McAllen's police chief, Victor Rodriguez, bristles when he hears sweeping statements about insecurity on the Texas border. The crime rate in McAllen has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years, Rodriguez said. During that time, the population has doubled to about 130,000.
"The picture people have painted, that the sky is falling down here, that is just not the truth," Rodriguez said at a police-sponsored picnic and folk-dancing festival in a park about a mile from Mexico.
The roads into McAllen from Mexico are lined with car dealerships, shopping malls, money changers and other thriving businesses. They have been sheltered from the economic downturn by members of the burgeoning middle class in Mexico who drive north to buy luxury goods.
Rodriguez, 56, has served as police chief for more than a decade, and he previously led police departments in two other Texas border towns. But the congressional delegation that visited his town last Tuesday met with rural county sheriffs and Border Patrol officers, not him.
Rodriguez favors granting more U.S. work visas for foreigners, doing more to crack down on illegal drugs, tracking and freezing cartel bank accounts, and chasing stolen goods and fugitives heading south into Mexico.
He's not surprised that Border Patrol officials ask members of Congress for more money, agents and equipment.
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"If I am the Border Patrol … what am I going to ask for? 'Double my size and give me boats and give me guns. I want everything I can get from you.' If I was in their shoes, I would be doing the same thing," Rodriguez said.
Smugglers will always find a way to get across the snaking loops of the Rio Grande, Rodriguez said. He is annoyed by politicians who, in his view, seek political gain, not solutions to problems on the border.
"They say, 'Seal up the border and then we will talk everything else,'" Rodriguez said. "It's as if I would tell you, 'I'll give you a million dollars when you get back from the moon.'"
Illegal immigration is down or holding steady in every area on the border except for McAllen and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley, the closest crossing point from the end of a train line nicknamed "the Beast" that runs up the Central American isthmus. Total apprehensions in the area are up 55% so far this year, to 125,000 people. More than half are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Border Patrol officials say.
The night McCaul's delegation arrived in McAllen, after visiting border areas in California and Arizona, the group met with 13 local ranchers around a long table at the Patio on Guerra, a local restaurant.
Linda Vickers, 57, a member of the Texas Border Volunteers, a group that regularly alerts the Border Patrol to migrants and smugglers moving north, said over steak and chicken parmigiana that she and her husband found border crossers on their 1,000-acre spread nearly every day.
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Migrants are dropped off south of a highway checkpoint and walk a 30-mile loop to elude detection, she said. That morning, she said, her 90-pound dog Tinkerbell tracked two men cresting a hill as she went to feed her horses. She called the Border Patrol, but the men escaped.
She told McCaul she worries that terrorists could be smuggled across the border, along with those simply seeking work. "It's kind of scary that you don't know who is coming over," Vickers said later.