AUSTIN, TX — The blurry photograph appears to capture the moment on July 15 when a Border Patrol agent handcuffed Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and perhaps the nation’s most well-known undocumented immigrant, at a South Texas airport near the border. A video captured by a reporter with the McAllen newspaper, The Monitor, who was evidently positioned a few yards away, recorded the preceding moments when a Transportation Security Administration agent reviewed Vargas’ passport and then handed it to a nearby Border Patrol agent.
The exchange was not without its element of media construction. Hours earlier, Vargas tweeted: “The only IDs I have for security: Philippine passport and my pocketbook US Constitution” Soon after his detention, the story flashed across the websites of news outlets around the country.
The groundwork had been laid four days earlier, on July 11, when Politico Magazine published an essay by Vargas, who described his situation in South Texas under the headline: “Trapped on the Border. I came to Texas to document the crisis of undocumented immigrants. Now I’m stuck.” In traveling to the Rio Grande Valley, Vargas wrote, “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and knew nothing about life as undocumented in a border town in Texas, where checkpoints and border patrol agents are parts of everyday life. I’ve been flying everywhere across the country—what would make this trip different?”
While the border is a literal line in the sand or demarcated by the Rio Grande River, “border security”—as Vargas learned firsthand in recent days—reaches far broader, stretching some 100 miles inland. Vargas’ recounting of being “trapped” on the border offers an important look at the elaborate apparatus of local, county state, and federal agencies involved in “border security.” “I’d heard about checkpoints and Border Patrol agents, but I didn’t realize just how much a militarized zone the Texas border is,” he wrote. Vargas is hardly alone in lacking information about what “border security” really, fully means in Texas. Too often, reporting on “border security” fails to look beyond the border itself—the border wall, images of the Border Patrol broncos kicking up dirt across the levees along the river, or agents in their familiar green uniforms riding on horseback or cruising the river, patrolling the line.
One recent example: Fox News’s Sean Hannity and his “border tour” by air and by water last week with Gov. Rick Perry. Hannity later tweeted a photograph of the two men onboard a gunboat traveling down the Rio Grande River, Hannity’s arm casually draped over the mounted automatic rifle—an image that more or less summarizes the report. Politico wrote up Hannity’s border tour—covering it as an event and carrying it to a different audience—on the same day that Vargas’ essay ran in Politico Magazine. The Hannity photo-op reflects, in an exaggerated manner, the all too common practice of seeing the “border security” story as one built from the the banks of the Rio Grande.
A “border tour,” of course, can only tell part of the story.
Texans—reporters included—who live and work in the border region are all too familiar with the network of security forces involved in “border security.” See, for example, this July 13 tweet from Tim Sullivan, the news director for KURV’s NewsTalk in McAllen:
Now, the White House has sent a $3.7 billion appropriation request to Congress to address the influx of mostly unaccompanied Central American children arriving at the border in South Texas—in part by increasing border security. Already a political fight has erupted over spending on border enforcement. As yet another round of political deal-making gets underway, it is useful for journalists and the public to have a firm handle on what “border security” actually entails, and how it is implemented along the border cities that are home to well over 1 million people.
Armed gun boats belonging to the Texas police regularly cruise along the Rio Grande, and troopers have been known to fire across the river. Last year, state troopers set up temporary highway checkpoints. Although officials denied they were part of a border enforcement strategy, residents reported seeing Border Patrol working alongside Department of Public Safety officers. The skies are filled with unmanned drones and Texas state police helicopters. Meanwhile, ATF, DEA, and ICE agents are also involved in border security.