AMAC Exclusive by Seamus Brennan
Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to El Paso, Texas today was probably not intended to showcase the success of the Trump administration’s immigration and border enforcement policies. But Harris has nevertheless picked the perfect city from which to learn what policies have actually worked to secure the border. The only way she could learn more about the border than by choosing to go to El Paso would be if she had invited former President Trump to join her.
Harris may not know it, but El Paso has played a definitive role in the decades-long fight to curb illegal immigration along the U.S. southern border stretching all the way back to when the city was the initial headquarters of U.S. Border Patrol.
Under the deportation policies of the early 1990s, Border Patrol agents apprehended as many aliens as they could, but even those deported generally found ways to make it back across the border in the following days and weeks. Observing the ineffectiveness of this approach, Silvestre Reyes, then-Chief of the El Paso Sector of Border Patrol, decided that deterring illegal entry into the country altogether was a more efficient strategy than focusing solely on apprehensions.
“They thought I was crazy,” Reyes said. “But I told them: ‘I’m not interested in apprehensions. I’m not interested in generating numbers. I’m interested in controlling the border.’”
Under Reyes’s leadership, Border Patrol’s Operation Hold the Line increased the volume of border agents and dramatically improved the physical barriers already in place in El Paso starting in 1993. The Operation began as a 20-mile blockade of 400 agents and vehicles every 100 yards along the border on each side of El Paso. It established the border control strategy that influences our nation’s immigration policies to this day.
As a result of Reyes’s groundbreaking initiative, border apprehensions dropped from nearly 300,000 to under 80,000 per year—culminating in over a 70 percent reduction. With the implementation of Operation Hold the Line, Reyes not only proved to his city, his state, and his country that borders can in fact be secured, but also provided the model for border security and immigration policies for years and decades to come. Following the success of the Operation, Congress allocated funds to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service so that Reyes’s “extremely effective border patrol model” could be replicated in other parts of the country.
Reyes was later elected to Congress, where he served eight consecutive terms as a Democrat and as the first Latino to represent El Paso.
In the 13 years after Operation Hold the Line was implemented, violent crime dropped by more than 34 percent. Since 1993, the year the Operation was put into effect, illegal immigration dropped 95 percent in the area over the course of 22 years. Additionally, since fencing in the region was completed, the city’s drug smuggling fell considerably, with marijuana and cocaine seizures cut in half.
During the Trump Administration, El Paso rose to become one of America’s safest cities—even in spite of its nearness to the border and close proximity to Juarez, Mexico, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. In 2019, Juarez had 1,499 murders, while El Paso only had 40. Since El Paso’s border barrier was completed, motor vehicle thefts plummeted by 60 percent. Burglary cases similarly decreased from 7,655 in 1993 to 1,297 in 2017.
When President Trump left office, El Paso had 131 miles of fully constructed border wall and experienced an overwhelming cutback in drug and smuggling activities in places where new border wall had been constructed. In two of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s El Paso zones, apprehensions decreased by as much as 80 percent from the first half of fiscal year 2020 to its second half.
By visiting El Paso today, Vice President Harris has unwittingly recognized the Trump Administration’s success in securing our border. Through the innovation of Operation Hold the Line and the policies and strategies it yielded, El Paso set the gold standard for a city that knows how to secure its borders and protect its communities—and other cities and states ought to follow its example. The Sun City was the perfect place for Harris to visit, but not for the reasons she thinks: El Paso is an ideal place not to downplay a crisis, but to show the country how to avert one. Leaders and elected officials should follow Silvestre Reyes’s lead and enact policies and systems that secure the border in ways that work.
In the end, the Vice President’s visit today may not have succeeded in anything other than inadvertently highlighting the effectiveness of the border policies she ran against. Let’s hope the rest of the nation can see what she couldn’t.
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