Since at least 2005, Texas Governor Rick Perry's re-election priorities have openly dominated Texas' border security policy. Campaign ads stoking fears of "terrorists" crossing the border were the centerpiece of Perry's 2006 gubernatorial re-election bid, and in 2007 the Legislature ponied up more than $100 million in pork-barrel grants - some of it going to people who where themselves working for the drug cartels - in an effort to create what's really quite a tenuous, money-driven coalition between law enforcement on the border and anti-immigrant activists in Texas cities and suburbs.
Perry's incumbency advantage combined with a strategy of pandering to xenophobia worked well enough to earn his 2006 re-election, albeit in an odd, 4-way contest in which only 39% of the electorate voted for him. Though his message didn't resonate with a majority of Texans, the math of re-election required only lockng down the right wing of the GOP base.
Now, once again electoral policies are dominating Texas' approach to border safety, with Governor 39% dishing up lots of red meat for the nativist base with an array of feel-good, do-nothing policies. The impetus this time around is well-liked US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's semi-declared intention to run for Governor in 2010, which easily poses the most serious challenge to Rick Perry since he edged out Democrat John Sharp for Lt. Governor in 1998.
In a Texas GOP primary, abortion and immigration are the touchstone issues and it's immigration where Perry thinks he can tack to Hutchison's right and lock up his third gubernatorial nomination. Based on 2006 and 2008 election returns, it's still doubtful a Democrat can compete head to head with a Republican for governor statewide, so if Perry wins the Republican primary, he'll likely continue on as Governor through 2014.
Sen. Hutchison supports a border wall and opposes comprehensive immigration reform, but she's taken pragmatic votes in Washington that Perry's people will be able to portray as "soft" on illegal immigration compared to his own politicized grandstanding.
Given that backdrop, I'm hardly surprised to see more border-related security theater from the governor as we head toward the 81st Texas Legislature in 2009. Perry wants to expand the $100+ million border security grant program the Lege gave him in 2007 to include urban police departments in the state's interior - essentially a pork barrel program similar to President Bill Clinton's COPS initiative. And he'll probably be asking them to pay for the security camera program he's launched along the Rio Grande river bottoms. Both requests IMO should be rejected.
Don't get me wrong: I don't doubt for a second that Texas needs to spend money on "border security," but a smarter place to start would be to finance Sen. John Carona's proposed law enforcement integrity unit at DPS, using limited state resources to take aim at police corruption. Instead, Governor Perry's pet initiatives are all PR or pork-related but don't seem designed to produce results.
That goes double for the Governor's longstanding push to put webcams on the border, which the Houston Chronicle reported yesterday has so far been a security bust ("Border cameras worth the cost?," Dec. 25):
More than a month after the launch of a state-funded Web site that allows people to monitor footage from surveillance cameras along the Texas border, the effort has netted one drug bust of more than 500 pounds of marijuana, officials said.
Since the Internet site went live Nov. 19, more than 21,000 people have signed up as "virtual deputies" and Web traffic has topped more than 5 million hits, according to BlueServo, the company that runs the site.
The program allows "virtual deputies" to monitor activity on 13 cameras in South Texas and report suspicious activity through www.BlueServo.net, which automatically notifies local sheriff's departments via e-mail of the reports, said Donald Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition.
The surveillance program, funded with a $2 million grant from Gov. Rick Perry's office, scored its first and only drug seizure Nov. 28 with the discovery of 540 pounds of marijuana and the arrest of a suspected drug smuggler, Reay said. He declined to disclose the location of the bust or the agency involved, saying that would provide too much information about the camera's location.
Hmmmm. Don't you think the drug runners already know where their man got caught with 540lbs of pot? For that matter, anyone watching THROUGH the cameras could identify enough landmarks to tell their vantage point. The only people for whom the camera's location is a secret is the public, not the drug cartels!
Indeed, there's a real chance these webcams actually aid drug traffickers instead of deter them: If I'm a cartel strategist, I'd make sure a half-dozen false tips were reported through the website every time I made a run.
In any event, there are only 13 cameras along 1,254 miles of Texas border, so this is an impotent and useless strategy no matter how many people view the website. It's a program created for the benefit of the web viewer, not with an aim toward catching the bad guys. Indeed, the Governor's people say it would be wrong to judge their program by so crude a measure as results:
Got that? When they catch a mule with 540 pounds of dope it's a success, but when they don't catch anybody, it's also a success because it's evidence of deterrence. Really?
Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Perry's office, said Tuesday that the governor is pleased with the new program so far.
She said it's designed to deter crime, much like a surveillance camera in a bank lobby, or a police car parked on the side of the road.
"If you try to measure its success on the number of people that are caught or pounds of marijuana seized, you kind of miss the point," she said. "We want to keep people from committing crime in the first place."
Does anybody think there's less dope flowing across the border since the cameras went up in November? If Texas can't keep contraband off death row, it's a dead-sure bet a few cameras won't keep it from crossing the Rio Grande.
Gov. Perry spent $2 million in law enforcement grants to finance this web circus, and he'll certainly be asking the Legislature to pick up the tab going forward. They should tell him "no." For too long Texas' border policy has been held hostage to the governor's political concerns, and for once the state should prioritize security over showmanship.