FBI data suggest southern border towns are safer than most US cities, but are they?

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AUSTIN, Texas — The safety of southern border communities is up for debate after new FBI statistics showed violent crime rates were lower per capita in Texas border cities compared to major cities nationwide.

FBI data published for fiscal 2022, which ran from October 2021 through September 2022, painted a prettier picture for communities located on the Texas-Mexico border than other places, including cities where illegal immigrants released at the border are choosing to resettle up north.

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“As someone who lives on the border and has raised a family here, I have found that the rhetoric about our southern border offers little resemblance to what is on the ground,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents the Laredo region of South Texas.

Lindsey Graham, Henry Cuellar
Rep. Henry Cuellar.

(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Murder and nonnegligent homicide rates were lower than the national murder rate of 6.3 per 100,000 people. Texas border towns Brownsville, El Paso, McAllen, Laredo, and Rio Grande City reported murder rates of 2.1 to 6.4 deaths per 100,000.

Meanwhile, New Orleans topped the charts with 72 murders per capita, followed by Cleveland with 40 and Washington at 30.

Violent crime — four types of offenses: murder and nonnegligent murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — was again far below other cities.

In Cleveland and New Orleans, upward of 1,400 residents per 100,000 were victims of violent crime, while the national average was below 400. Brownsville clocked in slightly above the national average with 432 violent crimes per 100,000 residents but well below Washington’s 745 figure.

Laredo, El Paso, McAllen, and Rio Grande City each came in below the national average.

“Year after year, FBI statistics show that crime rates are lower on the border than non-border cities across the country,” Cuellar said. “The reality of our border communities is simple: our crime rates are low, and our residents feel safe because of the efforts of our local, state, and federal law enforcement.”

Cuellar proposed one reason that violent crime is not higher on the border is a result of significant federal funding for border security and law enforcement initiatives.

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A Texas Department of Safety Trooper patrols on the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border, Thursday, July 24, 2014, in Mission, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool)

Eric Gay

Operation Stonegarden provides federal funding through the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency to local, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies to assist federal police at the border, effectively paying local officials for the time deputies and police spend working alongside Border Patrol.

Since 2006, the operation has made tens of millions available to nonfederal police, including $90 million in fiscal 2023.

But further down the border in Texas, Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales was not prepared to take the same victory lap Cuellar did.

“I don’t want to say that border communities are unsafe, but I also don’t want to say that they’re safe,” said Gonzales during a phone call Friday.

Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, right.
Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, right, speaks during a news conference on rising suicide rates at the U.S. Border Patrol, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Mariam Zuhaib/AP

Gonzales said, as with any town or city, certain neighborhoods can bring more or less risk for residents.

The FBI’s narrow definition of violent crime would not fully capture the human trafficking and drug smuggling crimes that are more acute at the border.

Gonzales’s district stretches along 800 miles of the 2,000-mile border and has been the epicenter of the Biden-era border crisis. Every day, police in his district engage in vehicle pursuits and foot chases of Mexican cartels attempting to move drugs like fentanyl or methamphetamine into the country or U.S. citizens paid to pick up and transport criminal illegal immigrants who have gotten across the border.

It was those border-related crimes that Gonzales said wouldn’t necessarily be reflected in the FBI’s violent crime report and remain among his top concerns for resident safety, particularly given the thousands of police pursuits of human smuggling incidents in the state.

“What this border crisis has done is it has brought a lot of people from outside the community in, and it creates a lot of unknowns,” Gonzales said. “That’s the part that I worry about that maybe isn’t getting captured as much is the stash houses and the smugglers that are coming in from these drivers and stuff that are coming in from locals. They’re there. They’re coming in from all over the country, all over the state.”

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Gonzales, a Navy veteran, said border communities are also unique in that cities are often half in the United States and half in Mexico, including Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, Brownsville and Matamoros, and El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Crime rates in Mexican cities directly on the other side of the border would be a better indicator of the state of those regions, he said.

“Anyone that does not live along the border — the impression is, ‘It is not safe and I don’t want to go there,'” said Gonzales. “That needs to be changed, whether that’s factual or not factual. That’s what people think. And so the longer this border crisis continues, the more people aren’t going to want to go to border communities.”



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