Times have changed in Texas. From migrant farm workers that flooded the Rio Grande Valley to aid in the harvest of the state’s fertile citrus groves and vegetable crops each year to Mexican ranch hands who, in some cases, have made a career out of working for the same rancher over the course of a generation mending fences, branding cows and participating in annual cattle roundups, cross-border workers have been an integrated and important part of the state’s farming and ranching industry past and present. 

You might say that when it comes to immigration reform, in many instances Texas farmers and ranchers have traditionally looked at the problem a little differently than most Americans, especially those geographically located on or near the southern border with Mexico.

Times have changed though with the advent of newer and more mechanized planting and harvesting technologies. Migrant farm workers play a less vital role in modern agriculture these days and many have been replaced with other types of border crossers, many of them illegally entering the U.S. and not all of them content with finding honest work. State and federal law enforcement officials say that some, in fact, are crossing the border as a part of organized criminal activity.

Citrus growers in the Rio Grande are the latest to be approached by federal, state and local law enforcement personnel promoting a campaign the U.S. Border Patrol is calling the Taking Care of Business Initiative, a program jointly organized by the Border Patrol; the Texas Attorney Generals Office;the Cameron, Willacy, Hidalgo and Starr County District Attorney's Offices and in cooperation with local Valley law enforcement agencies.

“This initiative is a proactive law enforcement approach that seeks to educate local business owners and operators of their role and responsibility in deterring criminal activity,” reports Enrique Mendiola, an information officer with the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector. “The campaign focuses on warehouses, hotels and motels, bus lines, and, in this case, farms and citrus operations that criminals might exploit as a base of operations to smuggle illegal aliens and narcotics.”

Nuisance abatement

Officials say the Taking Care of Business Initiative is supported by a little known Texas law under "Texas State Nuisance Abatement Statutes." Authorities argue that by denying criminals the ability to exploit businesses and easy access to property, the revitalization of neighborhoods and businesses is possible through the campaign.  

Officials at the Texas Attorney General’s Office say the initiative is an educational outreach to local business and property owners that provides insight into identifying and deterring criminal activity. Some of the illegal activities that the statutes address are prostitution, obscenity, gambling, organized criminal activity, and discharge of firearms, alcohol violations, as well as delivery, possession, manufacture or use of a controlled substance.

Under the Texas nuisance abatement statute, any property can be closed down by court order if it is being use as a crack house, brothel, gang headquarters, or other base of operations for criminals. The statute works by holding the property owners and managers responsible for what happens on their property.

Border Patrol officials are quick to point out that Valley citrus operations, like most farms and ranches in the border region, are often used by “spill over criminals,” who often use the property without the knowledge or permission of property owners.

“Local growers in the Rio Grande Valley understand the constant struggle and hardships associated with border security. Learning how to co-exist with border issues has been a key component to the agricultural culture in the Rio Grande Valley [but] recent trends by illegal entities require special attention from the agricultural community,” said Border Patrol Combined Enforcement Unit Agent James Granado in a recent press release to citrus producers.

“The Department of Homeland Security, through the Border Patrol, has reached out to local citrus grove owners to make them aware of current human and drug smuggling practices. Local citrus groves are commonly used to stash narcotics or humans,” he added.

Granado encourages grove owners to watch closely for evidence of potential smuggling in their groves and says that even though local agents have seen a fair amount of grove use along the western half of Hidalgo County, it has been very sporadic with incidences occurring all across the Valley as well.

He says local grove owners need to be diligent in reporting suspicious individuals to ensure that their property is not harboring illegal activity. To report unauthorized activity, property owners are encouraged to contact the Border Patrol at 1-800-863-9382.