By John Kanelis
The U.S. Border Patrol doesn't -- as its title would suggest -- just patrol the border.
Its enforcement responsibilities stretch far into the interior of the nation along both its southern and northern borders. Indeed, according to Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas, the farther away one gets from either border the more critical the Border Patrol becomes.
Yet, the federal government has on occasion sought to shut down the Texas Panhandle Border Patrol operations; the latest effort came during a budget battle just a few years ago. It was left to Thomas to become a spokesman for local law enforcement authorities in the Panhandle to argue with Congress to keep the patrol office operating.
"I don't know why they made me the spokesman," Thomas recalled, "but they did and I sent letters to (U.S. Rep.) Mac Thornberry asking for help."
The letter-writing campaign worked. The Border Patrol remains in operation in Amarillo with two officers assigned to work with local police, according to Thomas.
"They do a great job," Thomas said of the Amarillo-based Border Patrol operation. "They're very responsive to us when we call them whenever we stop someone traveling I-40 with folks who are here illegally."
Thornberry, who became chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee at the start of the current congressional session, sees immigration as an on-going issue of national security.
"It's been up and down as far as the Obama administration is concerned," Thornberry said about immigration enforcement. "We still have kids coming in here in a fairly steady stream and that certainly affects the resources that the Border Patrol can put into enforcing immigration laws."
Thornberry, who has served in Congress since 1995, acknowledged that "we can't get to 100 percent" in stopping every person who seeks to come into the country illegally, "but we can do better."
He said that the United States "never will be able to become hermetically sealed. We can't do that."
Thornberry recalled that the administration sought to close nine interior Border Patrol stations, "and six of them were in Texas. The argument was because it was for budget purposes."
Thornberry said he and his staff "talked to local law enforcement at round-table meetings. Finally, we were able to put in a provision in the Homeland Security appropriation that prevented closure" of those interior offices.
The Republican lawmaker suggested that Congress was able to outlast the administration. "Finally, the Obama administration quit asking for closure of those interior Border Patrol stations," he said.
"You can't defend the border if you don't defend more deeply into the country," Thornberry said.
The main artery through which the undocumented immigrants flow clearly is Interstate 40, Thornberry added.
Thomas agrees with the congressman.
I-40 is a main pipeline for "human smuggling and for human trafficking," Thomas said, explaining that he assigns two Potter County deputies to work full time in interdicting illegal or illicit traffic along the interstate corridor.
He said that although the Border Patrol's staff is small, its area of responsibility comprises the entire 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle. Thomas added that the Border Patrol relies on local municipal, county and state law enforcement to assist in curbing illegal immigration -- and vice versa.
"We do interact with the Border Patrol," Thomas said, "but not on a regular basis."
He said the sheriff's department interdicts human smugglers or traffickers "about once a month" along the interstate.
Thomas defined smugglers as "those who bring people here who want to work and provide for their families. The 'traffickers' are different. They're bringing people here to engage in things such as the sex trade."
He said the sheriff's department is somewhat restricted by law in holding someone who is here illegally. "We can only hold them for a specific crime," he said, citing speeding or some other traffic violation, or possession of illegal drugs. He said his deputies then will call the Border Patrol if the individuals detained are here without proper immigration documents.
"People just don't realize who is flying up and down the freeway," Thomas said. "We stop vans full of people trying to sneak into the country."
Thornberry indicated as well that the concerns about illegal entry into the United States do not concern just the southern border. "We have to worry about the northern border, too," he said, citing concerns about terrorists seeking to get into the country.
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wants the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to reconsider its decision to reduce its aerial surveillance along the southern border. The Texas Tribune reported that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson wants to cut by half the number of hours border agents will deploy unmanned aircraft to patrol the border with Mexico.
Abbott, a Republican, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo have sent Johnson a letter asking him to rethink the order, the Tribune reported.
"Given the recent surge of migrants from Central America and Cuba along the southern border," Abbott and Cuellar wrote, "we believe DHS should request more surveillance and security resources, not fewer."
Thomas called the DHS order to reduce aerial surveillance "crazy," adding that "every (Department of Public Safety) trooper in Texas has to go down to the border" to assist local authorities and Border Patrol agents with immigration enforcement.
He added that DPS's helicopter, which the state police agency uses for aerial surveillance in the Panhandle, and is stored in a Randall County hangar, "has to go down there a lot."
By John Kanelis