An open border invites hatred into our own backyard
In Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2002, there was not much for a young Navy petty officer to do in their free time. There was a bazaar that I’d visit to pick up food, DVDs or other things to keep me occupied. Most visits were an excuse to get out and waste some free time. Occasionally, the bazaar was the target of suicide bombings. I kept going despite knowing the possible dangers. An explosion or attack could happen anywhere, at any time. That was life as an American servicemember in Afghanistan in the early 2000s.
Overseas, there was always an imminent threat looming over us. For years now, our Border Patrol agents have been facing an increasingly similar environment. The 23rd District of Texas spans 820 miles of the southern border — more than any other in the country. It includes the Big Bend Sector, which spans roughly one fourth of our entire border with Mexico. Agents there are responsible for patrolling 517 miles of the Rio Grande. Despite the sprawling, remote terrain, it’s one of the most understaffed sections of our border. To properly surveil the area, Border Patrol relies on a combination of agents, park rangers, technology, and air support. Even with the best efforts of our law enforcement and Border Patrol, things still fall through the cracks. In 2009, a former University of Houston-Downtown student was convicted of a conspiracy charge for paramilitary training in anticipation of fighting alongside the Taliban. He had conducted the training within the Big Bend Sector, which was prime for these operations due the massive stretches of land. Legitimate terrorist exercises could happen in our own backyard and yet Border Patrol is our only line of defense.
In December 2021, agents in the Yuma Sector caught a potential terrorist attempting to illegally enter the U.S. This isn’t a one-time occurrence. Agents in every sector have stories like this — instances where bad actors came within an inch of entering into our nation.
Desolate areas of our border are apt for undetected activity. There are specific routes for cartels and transnational organizations to illegally smuggle drugs, people, or other contraband into the United States. Word can spread between groups: which areas are patrolled when; tactics to blend in with the surroundings; positions of checkpoints. Whether it be a group of Jihadists brought in by trailer, or semi-automatic weapons for an already-existing terrorist cell to use, there is almost no limit as to what or who could be brought through undetected.
There is always a common theme in my conversations with law enforcement: our adversaries know our borders are open, and the opportunity to strike has never been more available. It is ignorant to assume that terrorists are not going to seize this opportunity to act. I served two decades in the United States Navy as a cryptologist, surveilling communications of our enemies. I can tell you firsthand that there are people in the world who are dead set on killing Americans. They do not care about where you live, what color your skin is, or who you voted for. We have already seen how merciless these organizations can be in the public beheadings of Americans abroad, like Peter Kassig, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Freedom of press did not matter; the mission of humanitarian aid did not matter.
Since 9/11, our military has worked tirelessly to make sure that the terror from that day never returns to American soil. And yet, now it is seeping into the lives and responsibilities of our Border Patrol agents.
While we still mourn those we lost at the hands of terrorists, terrorists themselves are planning their next attack. Top U.S. officials have already said Iran is strategizing further retaliation for the death of Gen. Qasem Soleimani. And this time, the violence will not stay abroad.
We are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when the next terrorist attack will be. But there is a path forward that protects our border, defends our freedom, and addresses this crisis with real solutions.
First and foremost, we need to support our men and women in green. Our border patrol agents have been stretched beyond their means. They have become caretakers of unaccompanied babies and children, nurses for migrants found near-death, and humanitarian workers for sites comprised of thousands of people. They are so overworked in this intense environment that they have become numb. It comes as no surprise that morale and retention is at an all-time low. We need to focus on recruiting the next generation of agents and get them out of the processing centers and back into the field.
In addition to focusing on personnel, it is important to implement and bolster policies that provide Border Patrol agents with adequate enforcement tools. One such policy is Operation Stonegarden, a grant program utilized by many of my sheriffs and law enforcement. It provides funding to local agencies who augment and support Border Patrol’s efforts in areas where drug and human smuggling are common.
Finally, we need to tap into our diplomatic relationships. I have met with foreign officials from Panama, Guatemala, Honduras and other countries in Central and South America. They play a key role in keeping our adversaries at bay; their leaders have repeatedly told me about the number of criminals and terrorists apprehended at their border, with the intention on making it to the U.S. We need to use every tool at our disposal — and that includes warning signs from our allies abroad.
We are the greatest country in the world. We have all the tools we need to protect ourselves. What we lack right now is a common understanding of the threats we face and where we are most vulnerable. As a former servicemember and veteran of the War on Terror, the vulnerabilities at our southern border cause me great concern. There is a hatred that exists for Americans, simply because we uphold the values of freedom and democracy. It is a hatred I saw in the suicide bombers at the bazaar, in the messages I intercepted from terrorists, and in the destruction I witnessed in Afghanistan. And this hatred will seize any opportunity to harm Americans. And yet, with a wide-open border, we are inviting hatred into our backyard.
Tony Gonzales represents the 23rd District of Texas.