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Texas Border Sees Law Enforcement Surge

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has declared the state's border with Mexico a disaster and wants to take matters into his own hands. He met with former President Trump last week in front of a stretch of unfinished border wall.

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GREG ABBOTT: You look at this border, and you look what you see? You see an unfinished border. This is Biden's fault because President Biden is not continuing what President Trump began.

CORNISH: And so Abbott has vowed to continue building the wall himself. The governor has also deployed a thousand Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS officers, to patrol the borderlands.

AARON NELSON: Starr County, Hidalgo County are flooded with DPS - black-and-white SUVs every hundred meters or so. It's pretty striking. If you were actually to drive along, you couldn't help but notice it.

CORNISH: Aaron Nelson is a freelance journalist based in the Rio Grande Valley. He rode along with one of those state troopers and has been following this latest law enforcement surge for Texas Monthly. I asked him how it compares to similar operations in the past.

NELSON: It looks pretty much the same. It's a spectacle, and I think that that's very much what it's meant to look like. Now, DPS will say that they are making important drug busts, that they are arresting smugglers and traffickers, but I think for the average citizen, it's just kind of intimidating. And so I spoke with a few police officers who said - and they're much more in touch with their communities - they said that they're hearing people say, you know, we've seen this before. We know they're here for a while. We know that it's politically charged. But when do they leave?

CORNISH: Can you clarify the role these state troopers play, compared to federal border authorities?

NELSON: Well, the DPS does not have the authority to arrest someone on an immigration charge. They, in the past, have used traffic stops to search somebody's vehicle for drugs, for immigrants. And they were also acting as a quasi-immigration force, where they would identify somebody who perhaps was in the country without documentation and contacting Border Patrol, and Border Patrol would come and pick those people up. My understanding from the DPS director is that that is not what this operation is about, that they are really going after smuggling and trafficking, but in the last few weeks, Governor Greg Abbott has said that they're going to build a border wall. The state is going to invest $250 million, and they're asking citizens to donate money, so that they can finish Trump's border wall, making a Texas border wall.

CORNISH: So where does the money come from for that? I mean, you were writing that Texas, like, struggles with its power grid. So what's the spending he's talking about?

NELSON: I'm not really sure where he's saying that he's going to get that money from, and I'm not really sure where he says or plans to build. So I think that he's going to have to find private landowners who are willing to allow him in to build, possibly, a permanent structure. The governor claims that they've already broken ground, although he's not disclosed where that is. But what DPS would do, ostensibly, is somebody who they find north of one of these barriers, they would arrest that person - not on an immigration charge - they would arrest them on a trespassing charge. And the governor claims that DPS have the right to do this.

CORNISH: So even though the wall itself is not built, it opens the door for enforcement.

NELSON: That's what the governor claims, yes. And I spoke with DPS, and they confirmed that, yes, in fact, what we're looking to do is build this structure. And if you cross a structure built by the state of Texas, we can arrest you on a trespassing charge. So that's how they're getting around the not having the authority to arrest somebody on an immigration charge.

CORNISH: Republican governors in several states, including Florida and South Dakota, have committed to sending law enforcement officers to Texas for border security. And then, you had Trump's visit, so there's a lot of attention. What are you expecting will happen next?

NELSON: Well, I'm very interested to see what happens next. DPS has not said how they plan to incorporate state police from other states. But something that has been an issue even with the Texas state troopers coming from different parts of the state is they experience, in some cases, a culture shock. I mean, they don't understand the region that they're policing. They are professionals - I'm not questioning that - but they may not speak the language, and they may be unfamiliar with the terrain. So now you take somebody from Nebraska or Iowa who may not speak Spanish and crosses paths with somebody along the border, where Spanish is often the first language, and they can't communicate with them. I think this is rife with possible conflict.

CORNISH: That's journalist Aaron Nelson. His reporting on the border appears in Texas Monthly.

Thanks for speaking with us.

NELSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.