LAREDO, Texas — Joseph Hein likes spending long afternoons on his 500-acre ranch just outside Laredo, admiring the sweeping views of the Rio Grande and Mexico beyond it.
Despite others’ concerns about criminal gangs crossing the border, Hein never feels threatened, he said, and doesn’t believe there is an illegal immigration crisis. The thousands of National Guard troops ordered to the border recently by President Trump are not just a bad idea — they’re a huge waste of money, he said.
“They’re making a problem that doesn’t really exist,” Hein said.
Citing a spike last month in border arrests and the threat of criminal gangs crossing into the U.S., Trump’s call for 2,000 to 4,000 new troops along the border prompted a range of responses in this border community.
Some, like Hein, fear the perception of a military build-up on the border could deter Mexican commerce, which Laredo relies on. Others welcome the troops, saying they could bolster Border Patrol activities and deter illegal crossings.
“It’s a positive,” Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar said. “We’re going to increase the capacity of law enforcement here.”
Trump has not said how long the National Guard troops will stay but has suggested they should be stationed there until his proposed wall is built. Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also deployed troops to the border during their tenures to support U.S. Border Patrol missions.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said 225 Guard members from his state deployed Monday, with more than 100 additional troops sent Tuesday. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said about 250 Texas National Guard members have been deployed to the border, a force that will be ramped up to about 1,000 from his state in the upcoming weeks, he said.
Former White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert on Sunday defended Trump’s move to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, citing a 200% jump in year-to-year border apprehensions last month.
“What we’re doing is taking action now at the appropriate time instead of waiting as others have in the past,” Bossert told ABC’s This Week.
Overall, however, illegal crossings are at historic lows. The number of people caught trying to illegally cross the southwest border in fiscal year 2017 was 303,916, the lowest since 1971 and down from a high of 1.6 million in 2000, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics. That trend is carrying over this year: For the first six months of fiscal year 2018, which began Oct. 1, apprehensions are down 15% from the previous year.
“We don’t need it here,” said Adolfo Tovar, 20, who lives and works in Laredo but crosses the international bridge several times a week to visit family in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. “The Border Patrol is doing their job.”
When National Guard troops came to the border starting in 2006 under Bush’s directive, they mostly built roads and took on surveillance duties, said Terence Garrett, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, in Brownsville, who studies border security.
That exercise, which cost U.S. taxpayers $1.2 billion, also cost the border city of Hidalgo $15 million in lost bridge toll revenue when the perception of U.S. troops on the border deterred many Mexican businessmen and tourists from crossing, Garrett said.
While hurting local economies, the militarization of the border also bolsters criminal groups, who charge more to illegally bring people and drugs into the U.S., he said.
“It makes it much more lucrative for trans-national criminal organizations,” Garrett said. “There’s still demand but you’re limiting the supply.”
The National Guard members headed to the Texas border this time will be taking on similar administrative and surveillance duties, said Cuellar, who was briefed last week on the mission by the head of the Border Patrol’s Laredo Sector. The troops will not be armed, he said.
Cuellar said he welcomed more personnel on the border if they’re helping behind the scenes, though a better use of money would be to fund technology-based initiatives, such as the Operation Border SMART program his office has launched that uses drones, sensors and high-tech cameras to detect illegal activity along the border.
The program costs $92.5 million for five years, a fraction of what troop deployment costs, he said. Still, the extra hands will be helpful, Cuellar said.
“The perception of the community is that they’re going to be marching back and forth on the border and that’s not the situation,” he said. “They’re not coming here as police enforcement operations. They’re going to be here as support personnel, which is great for us because we need more help.”
Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina, the county’s top administrator, said he also welcomed the troops if they’re helping behind the scenes but said he was concerned that the perception of troops on the ground could hurt the nearly $3 billion a year in trade Webb County enjoys with Mexico.
“People want to think we’re in a war zone down here,” he said. “We are in no such war zone down here. This is probably one of the safest cities you could come and visit.”
This deployment feels different from those of past administrations because of Trump’s tough rhetoric against illegal immigration and his pursuit of a border wall, Tijerina said. “What’s making this an outlier is the wall,” he said.
He added, “He’s the president of the United States and we’re going to honor him.”
Hein, the rancher, said he encounters groups of people trying to cross the Rio Grande into his property once every two or three years and less frequently — once every five to seven years — he’ll witness someone trying to haul duffel bags presumably filled with drugs across his ranch.
He has good relationships with local Border Patrol agents and considers the troop deployment a political move, not a practical one.
“Someone needs to tell the country this is crazy,” Hein said.