The Austin Chronicle

How DPS's Occupation of a Border Town May Have Crippled Its Economy

Rio Grande City sees a marked decline in sales and tourism

By Debbie Nathan, October 6, 2017, News

Are Texas state troopers damaging the economy of a small town near the border? Eloy Vera suspects as much. He's a county judge in the Rio Grande Valley, hard on the border with Mexico. Vera started lambasting the Department of Public Safety in 2015 – though his main beef back then was not economic. Instead, he and his neighbors complained that when they were out driving, they got hassled to no end by troopers.

The judge's bailiwick is Starr County, an arrowhead-shaped stretch of land about an hour west of McAllen that abuts the Rio Grande River. Starr is mostly rural, including Judge Vera's ranch. His property teems with deer, many of which he has shot and mounted in his office at the county courthouse. There, stuffed animals stare glass-eyed at the public, their antlers spiking in multi-horned racks. Sitting at his desk, Vera rails against the myriad ways that DPS has made local folks' lives miserable, and maybe has even eaten into the municipal treasury. More on that later. First, some community background.

Starr's county seat and biggest town is Rio Grande City, population about 14,000. A bridge behind the local H-E-B connects to Camargo, the Mexican sister community, and Border Patrol vehicles roam the U.S. side of the riverbank and H-E-B's big parking lot. One thing they're looking for is drugs. The area has a notorious, decades-long reputation for narco-trafficking. Agents also troll for undocumented immigrants, and sometimes they stop American citizens by mistake – like a woman, the wife of a taquería owner in town, who was starting up her truck last spring after going shopping, only to be hemmed in by green-uniformed officers and questioned. They left her alone after she said she was native born, but redirected their attention to a passenger, the woman's mother-in-law. She happened to be undocumented, and was shipped to a detention center in Laredo.

In Rio Grande City it's not surprising that outsiders' perceptions of local people's immigration status might be erroneous. Over 98% of the population are Latinos, with the great majority of Mexican descent. White people are practically nowhere to be seen – except for Border Patrol agents and DPS troopers.

Rio Grande City is one of a chain of antique settlements along the river, dating from long before Texas separated from Mexico in the early 19th century. The area is still dominated by the Spanish language, and a vaquero culture – including smuggling – that has persisted through more generations than there are fingers on two hands. People on either side of the border have extensive kinship ties, and many longtime Rio Grande City residents are undocumented, though no one knows how many. They typically have U.S.-born cousins, spouses, children – and mothers-in-law. Legal and undocumented, everyone looks pretty much alike.

The area is funky, homey, and puro fronterizo: 100% Tex-Mex border. Male politicians campaign and do meet-and-greets in Stetsons. One resident, a barber, sings a capella in various Romance tongues while he cuts hair. The favorite food besides barbacoa is raspas – sno-cones – which get sold from tiny stands on Highway 83, the town's main (and only) drag. They come drenched in tropical fruit flavors and blood-hued, chile-laced syrup, garnished with gummy bears and gummy worms.

The last time DPS personnel disturbed the vintage rhythms of Rio Grande City was in 1967, when John Connally, Texas' governor at the time, sent a squad of the agency's elite, the Texas Rangers, to break a strike of the Cesar Chavez-affiliated United Farm Work­ers Organizing Committee. Rangers were later accused of smashing organizers in their faces with shotguns, threatening to drown one Farm Workers Organizing activist, and dangling another by a railroad track with his face inches from a moving freight train.

Forty-seven years later, in 2014, some 250 troopers showed up in the Rio Grande Valley, with a disproportionate number assigned to Starr County, including Rio Grande City. The troopers were sent by Gov. Rick Perry, as a major component of what had been named "Operation Strong Safety." Most came from out of town and stayed in the Valley for only a few weeks. According to DPS, they were sent to help the Border Patrol fight serious criminals, including terrorists and traffickers of drugs and humans. But instead of impressing the locals with their prowess in catching bad hombres, the troopers proved to be a huge annoyance, as they did what troopers usually do: stopped ordinary people for traffic infractions, and doled out tickets and warnings.

By the end of 2014, according to a later El Paso Times investigation, DPS traffic citations in Starr County had gone up 233% from a few years earlier. Meanwhile, in far-away, interior Texas counties – areas that the troopers abandoned when reassigned to the border – tickets and warnings decreased as much as 50%. People in communities like Rio Grande City were infuriated, and by early 2016 troopers in Starr and Hidalgo counties had stopped writing so many citations and warnings – though the numbers were still much higher than before the surge. Speaking on a Rio Grande Valley podcast, DPS Captain Hank Sibley said that issuing tickets and warnings for infractions, no matter how innocuous, gives agents near the border a reason to stop drivers and evaluate them and their passengers for serious criminal activity.

Rio Grande City residents are still aggrieved today. "It feels like you're in high school driver's ed," said Dina García-Peña, who publishes El Tejano, a small, bilingual newsweekly in Rio Grande City. "It's the feeling of driving and being constantly watched to see if you're going to do something wrong."

Vera knows the feeling. By 2015 he had been stopped and warned six or seven times, always for the same trivial thing. His Ford pickup truck has a bumper guard and grille in front that block part of the license plate. That's how the vehicle came from the dealership, and Vera says that moving the plate anywhere else would make it invisible, or risk blocking air to the radiator during the area's broiling summers – temperatures often reach 110 degrees.

Vera and García-Peña aren't the only ones with a complaint. It seems every Rio Grande City resident has a story about DPS hassles – and about lost business.

García-Peña says that people she knows from out of town don't want to visit her anymore, much less spend money. "My friends from McAllen won't come to Rio Grande City," she said. "I invite them and they say they haven't gotten their new inspection sticker yet, or they haven't paid a parking ticket. They're afraid of being caught here by DPS. They stay away."

People are especially fearful of happy hour and private parties away from home. "I'm the treasurer for a church near here," said Alberto Perez, the city manager of Rio Grande City. "It has an annual fundraiser, a festival where people drink beer." The festival takes place on one Saturday out of the year. Many attendees are local ranchers. On that one Saturday, said Perez, "we used to take in $50,000. Now we're lucky if we clear $15,000. People are afraid to drink then get back on the road to go home."

They're afraid they'll get stopped for a broken taillight, then have their blood alcohol level checked, says Eligio Garcia, manager of Rio Grande City's branch of L&F Distributors, which wholesales Anheuser-Busch beers to local stores, bars, and restaurants. Garcia said that his sales went flat in 2014, the year DPS arrived. As of this summer they are down as much as 10%.

Even Their Favorite Saleslady

Oscar Gonzalez, the owner of the local bar and restaurant Tekilas, is buying less of Eligio Garcia's beer. DPS agents park outside of bars like his and just sit there, Gonzalez says. It's not clear what they're doing. But whatever it is, it's enough to keep customers away. He says he has made 40% fewer sales since DPS arrived.

Vera has a similar story, but not about booze. At the intersection of Highway 83 and the road that goes past the county courthouse, a young man opened a fresh fruit and vegetable stand a few years ago, he remembered: "It was great produce! Avocados, tomatoes, watermelons, bananas. There were always a lot of people there. Then, all of a sudden, the stand closed. The reason was that DPS troopers had started parking close by. People didn't stop anymore." The young man closed the stand.

County Judge Vera, beer distributor Gar­cia, bar owner Gonzalez, newspaper publisher García-Peña, City Manager Perez: All have enough discretionary income to help organize charity events and to enjoy happy hours at nice restaurants and bars. They're comfortably middle class, with securely legal immigration status. But there's another group in Rio Grande City who are scared of DPS. They are the town's poor and undocumented.

Carlos Garcia used to claim many of these people as customers. He owns Char­lie's Tires on Highway 83. Gesturing toward the highway, he said that it's common to see as many as 10 DPS cars pass by every hour. It goes without saying that Garcia used to sell tires, including at secondhand prices. But after 2014 he lost half his business, and to stay open, last year he started doing truck mechanics and other vehicle maintenance work. Labor is not an object for sale, so it's not subject to sales tax. Garcia said he's now sending one-third less sales tax money to the state of Texas than he did before DPS came to town.

Before they arrived, many of Garcia's tire clients came from just north of his cluttered little shop, from a series of sprawling colonias – former illegal subdivisions. There, people live in jerry-rigged, homemade houses and decrepit trailers, some without running water, and many on roads that lack paving or streetlights.

A few blocks away, Hugo Alaniz, owner of Hugo's Transmission Service, tells a similar story. Since the troopers showed up, his business is down 30%. He makes up some of the loss by charging $40 to $50 to pick up the cars of people who are afraid to do the driving themselves. The money he charges for transporting is, again, labor, not sales. Alaniz sends no tax on these earnings to the comptroller.

Almost everyone in the colonias is abjectly poor, and many if not most adults are immigrants. "We had a sudden influx five to seven years ago from Mexico, people just trying to escape from the violence," says Perez, the city manager. Many are undocumented. Much of the work such people do is freelance, involving "local guys with a lawn mower. … They used to have a little trailer without plates. Now, they go out to work and DPS tickets them for not having the plate."

But even if they have the money to buy a license plate, how can such people qualify for one if they don't have a driver's license? Texas ceased issuing driver's licenses to the undocumented in 2008. Rio Grande City's public bus service runs only until 5pm, making just a few runs and covering only a limited area. The idea that many adults in town could get along without a car, especially those who work, is risible. Undocumented people in Rio Grande City drive. Therein lies their fear of DPS.

Patricia (not her real name) is one of the terrorized. She is from Camargo, Rio Grande City's twin town across the Mexican border. Patricia immigrated with her husband and daughter about a decade ago, without proper documents, to escape the growing cartel violence. Two sons were born in Texas and attend grade school in Rio Grande City. The family lives in deep-colonia poverty, in a tiny house just up the road from Highway 83. Patricia had a job at a sno-cone booth on 83. She also drove her kids to school every day and did household errands – in the family car. She worried about DPS. As she and her kids noted in a recent interview, troopers hide behind trees by the Wal-Mart on 83.

One morning a year ago, Patricia was driving inside her colonia, close to where the road intersects 83. A DPS trooper appeared and stopped her for an expired registration sticker. He asked if she had a driver's license, and when Patricia said no, he called the Border Patrol. She was taken to a detention center, where an agent recognized her as one of his favorite sno-cone salesladies and clucked sympathetically about her arrest. She ended up spending two months in detention. She's now out on bond and undergoing a long, slow federal attempt to deport her, complete with judges and lawyers and hearings. She's been under medical treatment since her DPS arrest for panic attacks. Her boys are terrified of anything they think looks like a DPS squad car.

In another Rio Grande City colonia, a woman with undocumented children (who does not want to be identified either) decided to go out to dinner with friends one night last year. Ten minutes from her home, a trooper stopped her on Highway 83 and said her lights were too dim. She spent a day in Border Patrol detention before being released. After that she moved 35 miles east, to Alton, a small town several miles north of 83. "I came here to escape from DPS and the Border Patrol," the woman said. Needless to say, she is no longer spending money in Rio Grande City.

Balancing a Broken Budget

Back in 2014, whenever the Operation Strong Safety troopers stopped Judge Vera about his license plate, he explained about the summer heat and the radiator and the dealership. After a while he got cranky. "Where do I move it to?" he ruefully recounts asking a trooper about the plate – as though his rhetorical question were the punch line to a joke.

By 2015 Vera was appearing at political confabs and media interviews, talking about how he and his constituents felt harassed by DPS. He worried that fear of getting stopped by troopers was discouraging locals from going to Highway 83 to buy things. "People will not go out, they stay home," he said during a panel discussion hosted by the Texas Border Coalition, a group of politicians who represent communities on the border. He said he was concerned about the local economy.

When Vera made these remarks, his fears were still based solely on his experiences with DPS and the anecdotes he heard from constituents. But late last year, just after Trump's election, disturbing numbers started trickling out of the state Comptroller's Office. Texas levies a 6.25% sales tax on products, and allows local municipalities to tack on as much as 2% extra, for a maximum tax of 8.25%. Every Texas business that sells things is mandated to send the tax it collects to the state. The state keeps 6.25% and returns anything over that to the city or county where the business is located. Each month, the Comptroller's Office publishes on its website the dollar amount of the returns, county by county and city by city. The website also lists month-by-month tallies for past years, so it's easy to compare different time periods.

Officials in Rio Grande City have been doing the comparisons in recent months, and they're worried.

Starting in November of last year, the town's sales tax revenue numbers began dropping, and in September of this year the average monthly decrease was 6.6%. In all, about $244,000 was lost in 11 months, compared to the same period a year earlier. In addition, over the past year an additional revenue source for Rio Grande City, its "mixed beverage" tax, paid by bars and restaurants, is down several hundred dollars, or about 18%.

In a well-heeled town or a big city, losing $244,000 and some change might seem piddling. But besides being tiny, Rio Grande City is one of the poorest communities in America. Starr County's unemployment rate in May of this year was 11% – over twice that of Texas and the U.S. Thousands of residents live in the colonias. Amid these hardships, 40% of Rio Grande City's budget comes from sales tax revenue. The money pays for the community's public schools, fire department, and many other essential services. A 6.6% decrease feels like a serious problem. Local leaders are scrambling to figure out the cause.

During interviews, many officials seemed circumspect as they suggested possible reasons. The peso is down relative to the dollar, some say. (It started a steep slide at the end of last year, from 18.50 to as low as about 21.50 to the dollar. But by April had risen back to 18.50, and since then it has been holding in the 17s, even as Rio Grande City's sales fail to recover.) It's the violence in Mexico, others say, that's preventing Mexi­cans from crossing to visit and shop. (But that doesn't explain the drop in beer sales, everyone retorts. "People don't come from Mexico to buy beer," says Garcia, the distributor.)

The unemployment rate is up, notes Dalinda Guillen, Rio Grande City's director of its Economic Development Corporation. (Joblessness is not; the rate fell from a high of 14.2% two years ago to 11% in May.) All those guys who were hired out of Rio Grande City a couple of years ago to leave town and work on the Eagle Ford Shale pipeline were sending paychecks back home to their families, but then the work ended and the guys came back, and maybe they're working now but making less money.

If lack of well-paid work is the problem, Starr County Judge Vera worries about DPS's effect on trying to get good jobs to relocate to the area. "We're constantly trying to attract new businesses and industry," he said. "Every once in a while we'll get someone to bite and want to look at us. But at one point it looked like we were under martial law here. If you own a business, the first thing that crosses your mind about the area is: It's not safe. I don't want to bring my people here."

Or maybe the problem is Trump. Immed­iately following the election, the fancy malls in and around nearby, far bigger and more prosperous McAllen emptied out, after the leaders of sister Mexican city Reynosa advised a shopper boycott of the U.S., to protest the newly elected president's anti-immigrant and pro-wall positions.

And then, there are the troopers. When Rio Grande City and Starr County bigwigs talk about the troopers' effect on the economy, their voices get passionate but also guarded. Some say they're reluctant to publicly criticize the DPS, for fear of repercussions from the agency or from Texas political higher-ups who favored sending the troopers.

One might expect that the Comptroller's Office would have ideas about the relative importance of different factors, including the troopers, in compromising Rio Grande City's economy. When the Chronicle inquired, Comptroller's Office spokesperson Kevin Lyons said that the sales revenue decrease in Rio Grande City was due to the town having erroneously been sent $1.2 million in sales tax revenues in 2014, money that should have gone to another county. Now Rio Grande City is paying back about $12,000 per month to the state, and will do so for the next decade. But even after subtracting this payback, Rio Grande City's revenues are short 6.6% compared to last year. What gives? Lyons said the Comptroller's Office does not investigate such questions.

High Threats to a Secure Texas

A Texas economist in the private sector had done research suggesting that DPS is implicated in the economic decline. Ray Perryman's work is based on something that happened in the Rio Grande Valley a few years ago, when the big law enforcement incursion was not so much DPS as the National Guard. Eleven years ago, in 2006, responding to perceptions of increased drug trafficking into the U.S. by Mexican cartels, the federal government sent 6,000 Guard soldiers to the border, under a program called "Operation Jump Start." A year later, "Operation Wrangler" put yet more soldiers on the border for several days. In 2014, amid concerns about increased numbers of Central American children seeking refuge over the Texas border, more soldiers were deployed.

One year after that, economist Perryman examined the effect on the Lower Rio Grande Valley economy of almost a decade of National Guard presence. His findings were disturbing. For each year that federal soldiers had spent there since 2006, Perryman concluded, the area lost almost 8,000 jobs and $542 million annually in gross product. As well, $173 million in retail and wholesale trade disappeared. Multiply $173 million by 2%, the amount that the Comptroller's Office sends back to most counties and cities as sales tax revenue, and Lower Rio Grande Valley municipalities lost $3.5 million a year in revenues. The South Texas border economy, Perryman concluded in his report, "tends to be adversely affected during periods of deployment."

No economist has quantified the effects of three straight years of DPS enforcement since 2014. In an email, Perryman said it's logical to assume that, if National Guard deployment has harmed the economy of Rio Grande Valley, state trooper presence could have similar negative effects.

Trump's election and inauguration as pres­ident may have made things worse when it comes to law enforcement. Border Patrol detention policies have become more draconian since he took office. And in communities like Rio Grande City, border agents often come into contact with undocumented immigrants through referrals made to them by DPS troopers – troopers who've identified the immigrants as undocumented while making traffic stops for trivia such as improperly placed license plates.

The Chronicle reported earlier this year on apparent, recent DPS policy changes about how to deal with drivers whom the officers stop, then come to suspect are undocumented. In prior years, it was common for troopers to stop someone who spoke Spanish, and after learning they had no driver's license, to simply write a ticket for that infraction and let the driver go. Calling Border Patrol appeared to be a matter of discretion. But in a memo sent to troopers by DPS Director Steve McCraw in early November of last year, McCraw noted that troopers have an "obligation" to refer to Border Patrol anyone whom they suspect is undocumented. (DPS denies that this represented a change in policy.) At about the same time that the McCraw memo was distributed, Border Patrol phased out its longstanding policy of letting people go whom DPS had referred, but who'd lived in the U.S. for several years, had U.S.-born children, and lacked a prior criminal record. November is the month in 2016 when sales tax revenues in Rio Grande City began dropping.

"When are they leaving?" According to Judge Vera, Rio Grande City's business owners constantly ask that question about the troopers. The answer: not anytime soon. During the state legislative session this year, $1 billion was allocated for border security in 2018 and 2019, mostly to DPS. The funding allows the National Guard to leave and effectively be replaced with 500 DPS troopers. The latest program is called Operation Secure Texas.

But is DPS creating security? Or are they creating grief – along with exaggerated claims about the troopers' effectiveness? During the first year of "Operation Strong Safety," DPS reported that, in conjunction with Border Patrol efforts, troopers had seized almost 150 tons of drugs. That figure came from Border Patrol statistics about its own drug seizures, and no one questioned the amount. But, as reported in 2015 by the Austin American-Statesman, Border Patrol denied having taken part in Strong Safety – meaning that DPS is taking credit for drug seizures it had nothing to do with. The Statesman further investigated the amount of drugs actually seized by Operation Strong Safety's various participating agencies. It turned out that DPS's contribution was less than 10% of what it had claimed to state lawmakers. Nor were arrest figures as claimed. Reviewing DPS arrests along the border from June 2014 to September 2016, Austin television station KXAN reported that only 6% were for felony drug possession, and just 1% for human trafficking. Most other arrests were for driving under the influence, or misdemeanor possession of very small amounts of drugs.

DPS also claimed that troopers were catching many "high-threat" criminals in a 60-county so-called border region, though many of those counties are miles from the border. "High-threat" criminals, according to DPS, are "individuals whose criminal activity poses a serious public safety or homeland security threat." For DPS, it turns out, these included speeding teenagers, drunk drivers, parents in arrears for paying child support, and low-level drug offenders.

Amid DPS's hype, and the anger and the fear the agency has engendered in Rio Grande City, there's one positive outcome about the trooper presence. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, crashes that involved drinking have decreased: from nine in 2013 to five in 2016. Crashes that resulted in "incapacitating injuries" are also down, from nine in 2013 to only one in 2016. In South Texas as a whole, probably thanks to heavy DPS presence, traffic fatalities decreased by a third during 2014 and 2015.

But safety in a section of the borderlands came at huge cost to the rest of the state. In late 2015, Austin's Fox 7 reported that Central Texas had an increase of 2,726 crashes and 152 deaths on DPS-patrolled highways – a 71% rise – compared to two years earlier. In 2014, when DPS surged to the border, traffic deaths statewide rose over 35%. (The following year the rate fell, but was still higher than before the deployment.) The period also saw a 28% drop in the number of traffic citations statewide, about a half million fewer tickets.

Accidents and lost lives are not the only damage wrought statewide by the disappearing tickets. When the fines for a ticket are paid, they include all kinds of surcharges, and much of the money supports Texas' judicial system. Due to the troopers' failure to write a half million tickets, that system has lost $130 million. The loss includes $3 million in a year for the Juvenile Case Management program, whose employees help about 125,000 at-risk Texan teenagers to stay out of juvenile jails. Lack of traffic-ticket-based funding landed the program at the end of last year in serious financial trouble. Its collapse would land an estimated 100,000 juveniles into incarceration. Likewise because of the missing traffic tickets, statewide indigent defense funding last year was down $1 million.

The state of Texas has also lost Rio Grande City's sales taxes, the 6.25% that the Comptroller's Office would have received if it hadn't gone up in smoke over the last few months as people stopped buying things. The town lost $244,000 – but that means the state missed out on $758,000. That's over three quarters of a million dollars.

This past August, on one of those very hot summer days in Rio Grande City when people need air to pass easily through their radiators, the city council passed a resolution against the notorious piece of state legislation known as SB 4, or Senate Bill 4. It was signed earlier this year by Gov. Greg Abbott and is often called the "show me your papers" law. Among other things, SB 4 mandates that local policing agencies cannot forbid officers from sending information to Border Patrol or ICE about drivers who were stopped, even for the pettiest infractions. A grassroots organization opposed to the bill, Texas Works Together, did a study of how much money Texas stands to lose if SB 4 were to go into effect. An estimated 1.4 million Texans are undocumented, and Texas Works Together estimates that 10 to 15% would exit the state, leaving Texas short at least $220 million annually in local and state tax revenues.

Right now there's a legal challenge to SB 4 and a preliminary injunction blocking much of it. But if the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals later finds the law constitutional, police throughout Texas will be able to do to immigrants what DPS already does.

Many Rio Grande City officials worry about that possibility. They've already had a taste of what happens when residents live in fear of being stopped and handed over to immigration. That taste has come from the troopers and it's created fear. In Rio Grande City they think they know what fear does. To people. To the economy. To happy hours, fiestas, and friends.

Debbie Nathan freelanced this piece and is also an investigative reporter with ACLU of Texas.

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