Four months after President Barack Obama went to the other end of the Texas-Mexico border to tally achievements in border security and call for comprehensive immigration reform, a Republican congressman said the border remains unsafe and convened a hearing Monday in this border city to show it.
"I do believe that the concept out of Washington that the border is as secure as it has ever been is not actually factual," said U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican. "The federal government is probably doing more than it has in recent years but the border ... is still not secure."
Poe, a member of the House Judiciary committee's subcommittee on immigration policy and enforcement, said from the start that he didn't want to combine border security and immigration. But since a secure border is the prerequisite many Republicans have set for immigration reform and the goalpost Obama accused Republicans of moving during his May speech in El Paso, immigration remained the unspoken presence at the hearing on the campus of the University of Texas-Brownsville.
Poe cited the number of foreign nationals in county jails along the border and the Border Patrol's statement earlier this year that 44 percent of the southwest border is under "operational control" to hammer home the insecurity.
"There are some in the federal bureaucracy who would have us believe that the violence is all in Mexico," Poe said. "These individuals know firsthand the violence is not confined to Mexico."
Tiffany Hartley, the Colorado woman who said her husband, David, was killed by cartel gunmen on a border-straddling lake nearly a year ago was the hearing's highest-profile witness. She recounted how she and her husband had visited a church on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake on Jet Skis Sept. 30 and how gunmen began shooting at them from a boat, hitting her husband in the head.
Hartley, who is represented by the conservative Washington, D.C.-based foundation Judicial Watch, said she still has no answers about her husband's death.
"It's going to take our government pushing Mexico's government in order to get them to start solving," murders, Hartley said. Judicial Watch filed Freedom of Information lawsuits on Hartley's behalf against the FBI as well as the State and Justice departments Friday seeking information about the investigation into David Hartley's death.
In her testimony, Janice Ayala, the assistant director for domestic operations of homeland security investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, expressed sympathy for Hartley's family and said, "We're working closely with our law enforcement partners and we continue to assist in the ongoing investigation with every resource at our disposal to make sure that those responsible are brought to justice."
FBI spokesman Erik Vasys said the investigation is ongoing.
"The FBI has been there since the beginning," he said. "We're working steadily to determine what happened."
Homicides commonly go unsolved in Mexico, where more than 35,000 have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime.
"The Obama administration's failure to seriously investigate this murder is wrong and she's been given the stiff arm on getting results," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said Friday. "We see it as a nonpartisan issue but the administration does have I think political reasons for not wanting to make too much of this case. ... Highlighting the fact that a murder took place at a tourist destination on our border runs against the narrative that the administration is trying to put out that the border is safe."
Border leaders have bristled at the hyped talk of spillover violence and characterizations of lawlessness that politicians use away from the border.
The violent crime rate in El Paso, across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most violent city, is lower than any other large city in Texas with the exception of Plano and significantly lower than Houston, which is in Poe's district.
But incidents do happen. Two years ago, bullets from a shootout across the Rio Grande in Matamoros struck this campus' recreation building and a car. No one was injured. Kidnappings and killings along the border have also been tied back to drug gangs in Mexico, but daily life in border cities is far from lawless.
Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez testified that Brownsville is safe and if the federal government wants to help it should send more funding for local enforcement.
Unmanned drones patrol the border from San Diego to Brownsville and there are more than twice as many Border Patrol agents now as there were in 2004 -- about 20,000. But most who testified said they wanted more "boots on the ground" at the border.
Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute public-policy conference that the United States' southwestern border was "as secure as it has ever been." Napolitano was invited to testify, but sent Ayala in her place, said Shaylyn Hynes, press secretary for Poe.
"This is not the testimony of those farmers and ranchers who live on the border," said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. He and Roland Garcia, a ranger for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, testified that farmers and ranchers along the border live in fear of the drug and human smugglers that traverse their property.
"It is a crisis in the very real sense of the term," Staples said. He said the resources the border has received are appreciated, but more are needed.
Hartley said she holds out hope that those responsible for her husband's death will be brought to justice.
"The men who murdered David live right across the river, they aren't over in Afghanistan, they're not in Iraq, they're right in our backyard," Hartley said. "The cartel members are taking over Mexico and they're killing anyone in their way."