AUSTIN (AP) - A Texas state senator took issue Thursday with characterizing the entire U.S.-Mexico border as a war zone, bristling at a top agricultural official’s assertions that America’s food supply could be threatened because farmers are being run off their land by drug smugglers.
State Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples presented a report to the Texas Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee detailing recent testimony from border landowners that farmers and ranchers in the area are often terrorized by drug and human smugglers who traverse their property.
He said that some Americans have even abandoned their farms and suggested that the trend could eventually affect the U.S. food supply.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Tommy Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands in suburban Houston, told of maintenance workers assigned to canals and other infrastructure projects on Texas soil who had been chased off jobs by drug gangs and gunfire.
Williams noted that Mexico is Texas’ largest trading partner but said that things have gotten so violent on the border that trade there could be compromised.
“I think we invaded Mexico for a lot less than this back when Pancho Villa was down there,” he said. “So it’s something we need to talk to our friends in Mexico about.”
But Staples’ comments drew sharp objection from Jose Rodriguez, a Democrat from El Paso, which borders the violence-torn Mexican city of Juarez.
“None of us can deny that there are incidents occurring on our side of the border,” he said, “it’s just the broad brush that is used to declare that we are in a war zone.”
Rodriguez said he walks the streets of El Paso and surrounding county and, “I don’t feel like I’m in a war zone.” But he also stressed that the whole U.S.-Mexico border is being unfairly characterized.
“What some of us are simply doing is raising the question, are we in a war zone?” he said. “Are we being assaulted, are we losing our American food supply? Those don’t really capture the reality in our border regions.”
Rodriguez said using what he called incendiary language, “creates this climate of fear.”
Staples countered that those calling the U.S.-Mexico border a war zone are law enforcement officials and “people who are being fired upon.”
Rodriguez also pressed the agricultural commissioner for hard data on the number of farmers who have stopped producing food because of threats from drug smugglers.
“If we are going to be making state policy on border security, we have to be doing it on the basis of facts,” he said.
Staples said his information came from landowners’ testimony that would hold up in any court of law, then went a step further: “We have more than testimony, we have pickups that are riddled with bullet holes.”
“No one is making it up,” Staples said, “we have documented, personal, firsthand testimony.”
Sen. Florence Shapiro, a Plano Republican, defended Staples and his report, saying it “is a document, not data.”
“I am not going to put my head in the sand and say `things are very safe around here, things are looking good,”‘ she said of border violence. “There are many people who don’t believe that and I don’t believe that.”
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