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DPS ends South Texas checkpoints

Funding would have to be found within current state budget; proposal faces initial criticism.

State law enforcement leaders said Tuesday they would no longer deploy controversial traffic checkpoints along the Texas-Mexico border, even as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called for an unprecedented border enforcement initiative.

Critics called the so-called regulatory checkpoints — used in the Rio Grande Valley in September and October — state-operated immigration traps. Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw defended the program, saying it heightened safety and disputing allegations that it was a ruse to catch or intimidate immigrants who are in the country without legal documentation. He called the roadblocks a “tactically brilliant technique but strategically flawed.”

McCraw cited public opposition as the reason the roadblocks ended, and he said they wouldn’t resume without legislative support.

The checkpoints were the first in Texas in two decades. The DPS has cited roadway safety as a main reason why troopers randomly stopped motorists, mostly in Hidalgo and Cameron counties. But an October American-Statesman analysis of Texas Department of Transportation data showed that the counties singled out by the DPS have low crash rates compared with several other population centers in the state.

Dewhurst said Wednesday he is pushing state leaders to fund a $60 million-a-year, permanent enforcement “surge” along the Texas-Mexico border to curb smuggling and crime operations by drug cartels.

Such a step would ramp up what previously have been occasional enforcement initiatives, massing additional state police personnel, aircraft, boats and other resources along the Rio Grande on a continuing basis.

Dewhurst said the additional funding would have to be approved by the Legislative Budget Board, and it would have to come from current appropriations in the state’s two-year, $197 billion budget. He didn’t provide any details on potential sources for the money.

“I’m committed to making this work,” Dewhurst said of the plan, insisting he was confident it would “shut down the border” for illegal smuggling and trafficking activity. “Seven of eight major Mexican cartels are using Texas as a staging area for drugs, smuggling and human trafficking.”

Dewhurst said he wants the funding approved as soon as possible, perhaps before the end of the year. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, had no immediate comment on Dewhurst’s plan. Josh Havens, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said Perry and state leaders “remain committed to providing the resources necessary to fill the security gaps left by the federal government along Texas’ southern border.’

Border security is a key issue with die-hard Republican voters at a time when Dewhurst, a three-term incumbent, is facing three challengers in the GOP primary next March. Illegal immigration and securing the Texas border have been repeatedly raised as issues at candidate forums this fall — at which Dewhurst and his challengers have criticized what they say has been a lack of federal action to secure Texas’ border and have called for more state funding.

Dewhurst continued that track on Wednesday: “For the past five years, I’ve responded to Washington’s abject failure along the border by leading the charge to equip Texas law enforcement with the resources they need to keep our citizens safe.”

Dewhurst also said that, when the proposed state-funded operation proves a success, “I’m going to send an invoice to President Obama.”

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, one of Dewhurst’s challengers who has called for improved border security, scoffed at Dewhurst’s proposal as campaign rhetoric. Patrick said he voted against the state budget last spring, in part, because border-security funding was cut from what had been proposed.

“The lieutenant governor has had 12 years to do something about this and has done nothing until now,” Patrick said. “Suddenly, he’s flailing away at every issue — border security, impeaching Obama, everything else. … It’s pandering at its worst. The public is going to see right through it.”

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, fellow Republicans also running for lieutenant governor, couldn’t immediately be reached.

McCraw said the additional enforcement could be organized and in place very shortly after the funds are approved.

While there is no funding for the Dewhurst proposal in the current state budget, an additional $122 million was earmarked for border-security initiatives — much of it for overtime and equipment. In nearly five years, Dewhurst said the state has spent about $800 million ramping up border security.

“If we can achieve successful results with a coordinated law enforcement surge over three weeks, we owe it to our citizens to do it continuously, for 52 weeks per year,” he said, referring to a three-week-long border enforcement surge in October that officials said reduced drug smuggling and other crimes.

Even so, Terri Burke — executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which has criticized costly border-security initiatives in the past as ineffective — called Dewhurst’s proposal “a political stunt.”

“I would argue we don’t have a border security problem. We have a drug cartel problem,” she said. “I was down on the border three weeks ago, and the Border Patrol has so little to do, they’re patrolling neighborhoods.”

Dewhurst also announced that he is tasking the state Senate Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security Committee to study changing crime-reporting rules so that a number of cartel-linked crimes being committed in Texas can be tracked. Some crimes such as human trafficking are not now included in what local agencies report to the state and federal databases, McCraw said.

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