Originally published by The NY Times
Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.
In August, during an interview with a local television station, Cindy Hyde-Smith, the junior Republican senator from Mississippi, sought to shore up her national security bona fides by sharing a trip she took to the southwest border.
“I’ve been in the Rio Grande river,” she told reporters, “with a bulletproof vest on and machine guns all the way around me.” Going further, she said she had talked to farmers and landowners on the border who told her “the drug cartels are running it.”
It’s unclear why the senator was in the river, but her assessment of the border as a dark and dangerous place is a familiar refrain in Washington. Plenty of policy on Capitol Hill is driven by statements that the border with Mexico is porous or claims that cities there are being overrun with illegal immigration and drug violence.
But in nearly half a dozen years of covering homeland security issues, I’ve found that rhetoric about the border emanating out of Washington offers little resemblance to what’s on the ground.
In many ways, border cities and towns and the people who live there are no different from those who live in the rest of the United States: People go to work; drop their children off at school; shop at giant outlet malls like the Outlet Shoppes at Laredo, a two-story building home to over 50 stores that sits just a few feet from the Rio Grande.
To be sure, human smuggling remains a problem on the border, and thousands of stash houses, buildings were smugglers keep migrants or drugs, dot the landscape of many border cities. And billions of dollars of cocaine and other drugs — including deadly substances like fentanyl — are smuggled across the border each year. But more often than not, the interactions between the two sides of the border are innocuous.
As the New York Times homeland security correspondent, I spend a good amount of my time reporting on various bills and policy proposals to secure the border. Much of this starts in government agencies and press briefing rooms in Washington, far from those who would be affected by the changes, which is why I try to visit the border as often as I can to see how these policies shape the lives of people living there.
There is a sense of interconnectedness between these borders towns and their Mexican counterparts. Each day, about one million people cross the border from either side for shopping, business and recreation. It’s common to see children coming into the United States from Mexico to go to school, and thousands of United States citizens who live in Mexican border towns commute to work in American cities every day.
“We don’t see people across the river as people living in another country. We see them as our family, as part of the same community,” Pete Saenz, the mayor of Laredo, Tex., told me during a trip there in August. That sentiment is widespread in many areas along the border, where family ties on both sides go back centuries. (To be sure, there are complaints from landowners about migrants and drug smugglers crossing private property and many people who support building President Trump’s border wall.)
I admit that as someone who grew up far from the border, I, like most Americans, once had no idea just how linked these border communities are. It’s another reason there’s a need for on-the-ground reporting from these communities that challenges narratives around them.
During my most recent trip to the southwest border, I went to San Ysidro, just south of San Diego, days after border agents used tear gas to to disperse about 500 migrants who overwhelmed Mexican border guards and rushed the port of entry.
After a tour with officials from Customs and Border Protection, I spent time driving around and talking to people at shopping malls, barber shops and even IHOP (my go-to spot on the road). What I found was a variety of attitudes about the migrants. But most people emphasized that the event in no way suggested that border towns were any more dangerous than other American cities. “It’s just like anyplace else, there is good and there is bad here,” a barber at Supreme Barbershop in Chula Vista told me.
And despite claims that border communities are crime-ridden or overrun by drug cartels, the truth is these towns and cities tend to be safe: From 2011 to 2015, all but one of the 23 United States counties along the border had violent-crime rates lower than the national average for similar counties, according to federal crime data analyzed by Christopher E. Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.
While illegal border crossings and drug smuggling continue, years of increased spending on border security means that federal authorities now know more about what’s happening on the border. Apprehensions of migrants at the border, which are used by the Department of Homeland Security as a measure of illegal entry, have been on a general downward trend since the mid-2000s, data shows. Predator drones fly over the border daily, along with tethered surveillance blimps repurposed from their use by the military to track the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Federal agents deploy thousands of sensors that can detect movement. And there are more than 17,000 Border Patrol agents patrolling on land and water, along with thousands of customs officers manning the southwest border’s 48 ports of entry. Nearly 700 miles of border are already fenced off — all before President Trump’s proposed border wall is completed. But still there is a sense of normalcy there, of people just trying to get through their days and weeks.
After years of reporting on border security issues from Washington, it’s easy to get lost in the policy debates and overlook what’s actually happening in places like Laredo. But by making sure I make regular trips to the border, I can put the human implications of policies in the forefront of my reporting.