Friday, November 20, 2009

Perry: Obama punishes Texas with border program

Border official disputes governor's claims about Presidio immigration program.
By Jason Embry
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Friday, November 13, 2009

Gov. Rick Perry has opened up a new front in his yearlong political war against the federal government, accusing the Obama administration this week of dumping thousands of illegal immigrants on a small, unsuspecting Texas border town.

He described the program in far more alarmist terms than those used by immigration officials on the ground who say they have returned immigrants to Mexico through Texas for years.

But the the imprecision of his comments aren't likely to slow Perry down much as he tries to endear himself to the Texans who will vote in the March Republican primary, when Perry will face a challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Perry has assailed Washington Democrats this year for their efforts to change the health care system and reduce global warming, saying those plans will cripple the state's budget and economic activity. He even expressed a bit of sympathy for those who want Texas to leave the United States, although he said that's not the option he'd choose.

It all appears to be working for him. Several public polls in recent months have shown Perry leading Hutchison, and his comments Wednesday in Midland that the Obama administration is "hell-bent on taking America towards a socialist country" landed him on Fox News and at the center of the Drudge Report Web site Thursday.

That comment came shortly after he assailed the newly launched Alien Transfer and Exit Program as the latest sign that the Obama administration is trying to punish Texas.

Under the program, Mexican men between the ages of 20 and 60 who are unaccompanied by wives or children and whose only offense is coming into the United States illegally are sent from Arizona to Presidio, a border town of about 6,000 west of Big Bend.

Bill Brooks, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the program began about three years ago and was used to transfer immigrants between California and Arizona. The launch of the Presidio effort on Nov. 1 was the first time immigrants have come through Texas under the program, but immigrants have been taken from Arizona to Eagle Pass for years under different programs, Brooks said.

Officials say the efforts help break the cycle of human smuggling.

"If somebody from Mexico hires a smuggler to bring them in through Arizona, and they get apprehended and then they are repatriated through Arizona, they go find the smuggler, and they keep doing it until they get past us," Brooks said. "We will move them to a different place so they're not going to go find the smuggler again."

After arriving from Arizona, the illegal immigrants walk across a bridge to the Mexican town of Ojinaga, where Mexican authorities put them on a bus and send them to the interior of Mexico, Brooks said.

"It's not like we just push them out," Brooks said. "We give them some water, give them some food to take with them. They cross and then go to the Mexican immigration authorities. We're standing there. They're not going to be able to come back."

The immigrants — as many as 94 a day — are in Presidio for about 10 minutes before they go across the bridge, Brooks said.

He said Mexican officials have told U.S. officials that the immigrants immediately get on another bus once they cross the bridge.

But in his Midland speech Wednesday, parts of which were posted online by the Midland Reporter-Telegram, Perry said the immigrants could cause the population of Presidio to double in a couple of months.

"This is a city that does not have the social services, does not have the law enforcement, does not have the ability in any form or fashion to handle that type of influx of people," Perry said. "And I say that about Presidio because you know what's going to happen. They're faced with the Chihuahuan Desert or Texas? They're turning around and going back to Texas.

"Do the math on that. In a year period of time, we're talking 28,000 people that are going to be turned loose on our border."

Brooks said that nobody has tried to come back in through Presidio since the program began less than two weeks ago. He also said that federal officials chose Presidio because it is in a remote area where human smuggling is not known to be a problem, and because the number of border patrol agents there has tripled in recent years.

"We feel like we're quite capable of dealing with anything that might come up," Brooks said. "We've been doing this for years. And I'll point out to you that our agents and their families live in that same area, so we have a vested interest in seeing to it that Presidio remains safe."

Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan, a Democrat, echoed Perry's comments that he was caught off guard by the program.

He said the program hasn't caused problems for Presidio residents, but in an area with high unemployment, he said he worries that a human-smuggling ring to bring the Mexican nationals back into Presidio will develop.

"We do have a very extensive drug-smuggling infrastructure in place in Ojinaga that's run out of Juárez," Agan said. "The terrain plays in our favor because you're going to have to do some work to get up to a road where you can be smuggled out. But it can be done."

Asked about Brooks' comments that the immigrants are in Texas for only a matter of minutes, Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger responded: "Turning the Presidio area into a way station for the repatriation of illegal immigrants adds responsibility to local authorities and holds the potential of increasing the strain on local and state infrastructure and resources. This plan will increase the likelihood that these individuals will immediately cross back into Texas."

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