- Associated Press - Friday, August 1, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - ?When Texas leaders ordered a $30 million “surge” of Department of Public Safety troopers to the Rio Grande Valley in mid-June, they touted the success of an earlier operation that they said was a model for the current effort.

In a June 18 letter expressing his support for the new operation, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst cited Operation Strong Safety, which massed DPS troopers along the border last fall for three weeks.

The Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/1zD7KZJ ) reports the effort “achieved astounding results,” he wrote, echoing earlier claims by DPS officials that Strong Safety had “curtail(ed)” cartel activity in the region during the surge.

Yet the raw numbers behind those claims, obtained this week by the American-Statesman through a Texas Public Information Act request, show that the surge’s impact was actually much less clear-cut.

For example, the DPS boasted in a press release that drug seizures had decreased during the surge - a sign the operation had deterred illegal activity, according to the agency - citing drops in confiscated cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine. What officials didn’t mention is that heroin seizures increased 61 percent during that period.

At the same time that the DPS identified decreased drug seizures as a mark of Strong Safety’s success, the agency also pointed to increased currency seizures as an indication the operation had worked. Even then, while officials trumpeted a dramatic 185 percent increase in U.S. currency seizures, they didn’t mention that currency seizures continued to rise steeply over the next three weeks after the surge ended.

DPS Director Steve McCraw told the Statesman on Thursday the varying results were “positive, relevant outcomes related to the disruption of cartel activity.” For example, he said, “cash is typically a southbound commodity, and heroin is typically smuggled through the ports of entry.”

On one level, officials’ parsing of statistics to declare the success of a high-profile operation is a reminder that the 1,254-mile border between Texas and Mexico often serves as a stage for political theater, a place where partisan actors on either side of the immigration and security debates can find ample evidence to support their positions and dismiss those of their opponents.

Yet the numbers also highlight real-world challenges facing officials as they embark on another expensive operation they say is necessary to protect Texans from a border left porous by federal negligence. Hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding hang on the question of what constitutes a successful operation. How it is measured matters.

In a report in Sunday’s paper, the American-Statesman detailed how state officials had used different, sometimes conflicting criteria to declare past border surges a success. The story also noted that the DPS had yet to come up with a measurement of success for the latest operation - a $30 million surge of DPS troopers scheduled to continue through at least the end of the year. Over the next month, an additional 1,000 Texas National Guard troops will deploy to the border, at a cost of $12 million per month, with no defined end date.

On Tuesday, McCraw told a Texas House committee that the agency had landed on a reliable metric. A decrease in the number of undocumented immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol during the operation “is the best indicator across the board” to determine the impact of the surge, he said. He also recommended including drug prices and crime trends, such as home invasions and police pursuits, as performance measures.

Yet using apprehensions to gauge progress has been tried and discarded as a reliable metric by others. The U.S. Homeland Security Department, which oversees U.S. Border Patrol, turned to the number of apprehensions as an indicator of its progress securing the border in 2011. The Government Accountability Office later found the number to be incomplete, particularly as it didn’t take into account the number of people crossing the border that agents missed.

McCraw said Border Patrol activities differ from those of the DPS, so measures of success wouldn’t be the same. The GAO, he told the Statesman, “has not assessed sustained, 24/7, multiagency surge operations on the border, and we would encourage them to do so.”

Henry Willis, director of the RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center, who has studied border metrics for the Homeland Security Department, agreed that “it is certainly important to keep track of apprehensions. But unfortunately it doesn’t tell you everything that’s going on.” For example, the number of apprehensions has climbed and dropped over the past decade, often due not to any particular law enforcement efforts, but rather as the result of larger forces such as economic or social pressures in home countries.

Still, Willis added that tracking the number of apprehensions can be useful - when compared with the number of border crossing attempts. In its most recent annual performance report, the Homeland Security Department said it would start using the “rate of interdiction effectiveness,” which essentially calculates the percentage of border-crossers intercepted versus those undocumented immigrants who enter the country successfully. The latter figure is reached through a combination of in-person sightings, technological surveillance and guesswork.

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