Immigration reform amid unprecedented border security buildup

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PRESIDIO COUNTY, Texas -- Every recent attempt to push immigration reform through Congress has been stalled by demands for tighter border security.

But this time the debate takes place against the backdrop of an unprecedented security buildup.

Nationwide the Border Patrol has doubled in force since 2005 when the Bush administration began a   massive hiring push.

 Along the rugged stretch of border, known as the Big Bend sector, the number of Border Patrol agents has nearly tripled to about 650 agents.

“The amount of border patrol agents has increased so much it looks like they’re trying to do something beside drive up and down the roads,” said Chuck Donaldson of Marfa. “They’ve got some cameras and stuff now.”

Border surveillance includes, cameras, ground sensors, and six drones that fly over the border giving agents a bird’s eye view of potential threats on the ground.

It’s all part of a strategy adopted last year to target enforcement.

“We look at what has the highest risk and then we adjust to that particular risk,” said John Smietana, Chief Patrol Agent for the Big Bend Sector.

The strategy relies more heavily on intelligence to identify and more quickly respond to threats and smuggling attempts by drug trafficking and human smuggling organizations.

“It serves us well in this rugged, remote area to be based on intelligence and we have a better understanding of what we’re facing and the traffic patterns,” said Smietana.

The latest effort may not be enough to convince critics of President Obama’s immigration reform plan which includes a “pathway to citizenship” for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants.

A small, bipartisan group of senators, who laid out plans to push immigration reform legislation, wants to require tighter border security before any pathway to citizenship can be enacted.  The president’s plan did not include that requirement.

Some border residents who have seen the results of past efforts to crackdown on illegal immigration by penalizing employers, who hire undocumented farm hands, are skeptical. 

“They were going to penalize us 10,000 for every one we got,” said Felipe Cordero whose father owned a farm in Presidio County. “What did they do? They killed all the farms,” said Cordero, a former county commissioner.

He blames employer sanctions for forcing cotton, onion and cantaloupe farms to shut down because they could not hire enough agricultural workers in the U.S.

“The best times we used to have is when the Mexicans used to come across,” he added.