With the flooding, destruction, displacement, and chaos attending the fury wreaked by Hurricane Harvey on Houston and surrounding coastal areas of Texas, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assigned Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and equipment the task of assisting in search-and-rescue operations.
Among the significant equipment were assets from CBP's Air and Marine Operations (AMO) division — specifically Blackhawk helicopters that otherwise would be patrolling the skies over our international border with Mexico to help prevent illicit incursions of aliens, drugs, and other contraband.
News reports now suggest that these assets will also be assigned to aid overwhelmed state and local police agencies in deterring looting, break-ins, and other illegal acts during the recovery stage.
I don't suggest that the diversion of these assets from their primary mission wasn't the right thing to do — it clearly was. But it doesn't come without costs, literally, since as far as I know, there is no expectation of reimbursement from state or local government for the substantial outlay of keeping the air assets and personnel at those important tasks. And, of course, when they are not being used to support border enforcement or homeland security operations, there is a diminution of the efficiency of ground Border Patrol units who rely on the air surveillance as a part of the government's "layered defense" of our international boundary; fewer ICE agents will also be assigned to detection of crimes such as alien and drug smuggling.
There is also some irony involved: Houston, and Harris County of which it is a part, has been less than cooperative with many ICE enforcement endeavors, and teeter-totters on the edge of designation as a sanctuary jurisdiction, in which case they risk losing federal grant monies from the Justice Department.
One of the arguments many so-called sanctuary jurisdictions have made is that they don't want, and should not be required, to spend their finite resources doing "federal" work. This overlooks the many thousands — sometimes millions — of dollars that such jurisdictions receive in federal grant funding. It also overlooks the substantial unreimbursed costs absorbed by DHS agencies engaged in tasks on an unreimbursed basis, such as those now being undertaken by CBP and ICE to help out the state and local agencies in areas affected by the hurricane.
While search-and-rescue may be out of the norm, it's worth observing that CBP and ICE routinely help out state and local police in other matters without expectation of cost reimbursement. Readers may recall that when two convicted murderers escaped from prison in New York State in the summer of 2015, it was Border Patrol tactical agents who located and were obliged to shoot one of them, Richard Matt, after weeks of being at large.
New York State and several of its cities and counties, like Houston and Harris County, also have a dubious history of cooperation with federal immigration authorities. In fact, the state actually has a policy that permits consideration of whether or not the grant of a pardon by the governor would result in ensuring that the alien recipient would be able to evade deportation.
Such a horse-blinkered, one-way-street point of view on the part of state and local governments toward cooperation with federal immigration agents deserves to be noted even though, as I said, providing the aid to metro Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is the right thing to do. Of course, aiding ICE in rounding up and removing alien criminals also seems like the right thing to do.
One last irony is that a bill recently introduced into Congress by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the "Building America's Trust Act" (on which I will shortly be publishing an analysis), would significantly inhibit diversion of AMO resources for precisely the kind of mission they are now undertaking in the senator's home state.