Night vision gear, license plate readers, new vehicles: What local law enforcement says it needs to assist Border Patrol with Texas’ comprehensive border security plan

Night vision gear, license plate readers, new vehicles: What local law enforcement says it needs to assist Border Patrol with Texas’ comprehensive border security plan

PRESIDIO COUNTY –– The Marfa Police Department, alongside several other city and county departments, submitted a request to the Texas Division of Emergency Management two weeks ago that detailed all of the equipment and funds it says its officers will need to assist Border Patrol in managing the recent wave of undocumented immigrants crossing the border illegally.

The Marfa Police Department, with one of the largest requests, is asking for a grand total of $815,948 –– almost double the department’s current yearly budget –– to purchase night vision equipment, license plate readers, bullets, new patrol units, an ATV, a transportation van and additional personnel, according to the request that was obtained by The Big Bend Sentinel.

In mid June, The Texas Division of Emergency Management held a seminar at the Presidio County Courthouse to show local officials how to account for expenses incurred from what Texas Governor Greg Abbott has referred to as a migrant disaster. Al Talavera, the regional coordinator from TDEM, also directed officials to submit a list –– known as a border budget forecast form –– outlining the equipment their departments will need in order to help manage the crisis in the coming two years.

This is just one element in Abbott’s plan to get local and statewide agencies more involved in immigration enforcement –– an authority only within the purview of the federal government. As part of this push, Abbott has said that he wants to have local, county and state law enforcement arrest undocumented immigrants for state charges related to trespassing.

“We don’t work immigration,” said Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez. “I don’t want anyone to think that’s what we’re doing. Border Patrol is here. That’s their job.”

But Marquez added, “If we’re having to step up and go a little bit further and assist Border Patrol and local law enforcement with issues that are happening outside the city of Marfa that are going to affect our residents and our visitors, we need the proper equipment.”

At the TDEM seminar in June, an agent from Border Patrol presented a list of possible tools local law enforcement could request –– from ATVs and night vision gear to spike strips and handheld drones.

The Marfa Police Department took up many of the suggestions presented by the agent. The entire list of equipment requested by the department in the budget forecast form includes: four concealable body armor sets; five patrol units; 4,680 hours worth of overtime; five sets of night vision equipment; two additional personnel; 30,000 bullets; five spike strips; two license plate readers; one transportation van; $17,426 in transportation costs; one Polaris off-road vehicle; one 4×4 pick-up truck; and one tow trailer.

As part of the forecast form, the police department provided a letter of justification, outlining how this new equipment and funding would benefit the agency in terms of mitigating the border crisis.

Much of the justification centers around further aiding Border Patrol in its mission to apprehend undocumented immigrants. For example, the department wrote that it needs night vision gear, which will, “help our officers while on patrol to track individuals hiding in the brush and throughout the town. A number of MPD’s apprehensions have been hindered due to the lack of equipment.”

The department said it also needs license plate readers to investigate, “vehicles used for the smuggling of persons and narcotics.” The letter goes on to say that the Border Patrol checkpoint just south of town is unmanned sporadically throughout the day, making it vulnerable to smuggling attempts. “The plate readers would assist us in identifying vehicles used during these attempts,” the department wrote.

Further down in the letter of justification, the police department wrote that rather than outsourcing the job to another agency, it needs its own van to transport apprehended undocumented immigrants. “Our local detention centers are staying at or near capacity and the increased number of apprehensions means we’ll need to look for another place to house anyone local law enforcement arrested entering the U.S. illegally,” the department said in the letter.

In an interview, Chief Marquez stressed that while he requested a wide range of equipment, what his department really needs is new patrol units and more funds for overtime, as his department has been dealing with an increasing number of car chases involving undocumented immigrants. “New units will allow MPD to continue assisting local law enforcement partners in securing the border and protecting our local jurisdiction for the increased number of pursuits,” the department wrote in its letter.

“My main goal was for us to get new vehicles as well as the overtime. That’s what I’m pushing for,” Marquez said.

This request comes just months after the Marfa City Council allowed the police department to participate in Operation Stonegarden, a Department of Homeland Security grant program that, according to DHS, increases “cooperation and coordination” between Border Patrol and local law enforcement. Marquez said that his department has yet to see any of those funds, however.

The Marfa Police Department was not the only department to submit a request for funds to TDEM. The Presidio County Sheriff’s Office asked for $237,000 for four new fully-equipped pick-up trucks and a satellite communications package. The Presidio Constable’s Office wants $52,975 for a new Chevy pick-up truck, upgraded with a new grill guard, a police radar and tinted windows. And both the Presidio and Marfa Fire Departments asked for new brush trucks to help with fires they say have been set by undocumented immigrants.

“In the past, occasionally, wildfires are set as diversions to draw attention from another location,” Fire Chief Gary Mitschke said, while acknowledging that he hasn’t seen an increase in diversionary fires recently.

Even County Attorney Rod Ponton got in the mix, asking for around $200,000 to hire a new prosecutor and investigator, as he said he’s seen an increase in border crimes recently.

The Presidio Police Department wrote up a list totalling $1,237,885, asking for much of the same equipment that the Marfa Police Department had requested. However, Presidio Police Chief Margarito Hernandez said that he missed the deadline, which was July 9, to submit the proposal.

Despite departments located within the county asking for at least $2,000,000 in aid (if the Presidio Police Department’s request is included), The Big Bend Border Patrol Sector is apprehending the fewest number of undocumented immigrants out of any Customs and Border Protection sector on the Southern Border. According to CBP stats, the Big Bend Sector encountered 4,554 undocumented immigrants in June –– about a tenth of the numbers seen in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, which is the busiest sector along the border.

And Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara has said in the past that the county hasn’t been seeing the impacts of this wave as much as neighboring counties. “Right now, things aren’t bad for Presidio County as far as the influx, but what if that changes in a month or two?” Guevara told The Big Bend Sentinel back in June.

Justice of the Peace David Beebe –– whose office is in charge of overseeing the burial of unidentified bodies found within the county –– said that he has not seen an increase in migrant deaths in recent months. Beebe said he has handled three cases in 2021, a rate consistent with years past. Beebe added that he did not submit a request to TDEM, saying, “The reason I didn’t submit anything is that I wasn’t invited to join the process.”

If the county and city departments will actually receive these funds is still very much an open question. The governor planned on presenting these reports at the special legislative session that began early in July, where he marked border security as priority. His goal was to have the legislature set aside funding “to support law-enforcement agencies, counties, and other strategies as part of Texas’ comprehensive border security plan,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.

However, a majority of Texas Democratic House lawmakers fled to Washington, D.C. last week, breaking quorum and bringing the special session to a grinding halt –– leaving the future of this border-security funding hanging in the balance.