Victoria residents from both sides of the political aisle agreed on at least one issue at a Wednesday discussion panel about border security.

“There is a crisis at the border,” said Victoria resident Danna Cole, a 58-year-old, self-described progressive Democrat.

“I just see so many things going wrong,” said Sarah Rush, a 58-year-old Victoria Republican.

Wednesday morning, more than 60 community members accepted an invitation to attend a panel discussion on border security at a University of Houston-Victoria auditorium. There, U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud led a seven-person discussion panel featuring local and federal law enforcement officials and a Goliad County landowner who had witnessed human smuggling on his property.

“My first task as a representative is to listen, so I’m here to listen to law enforcement. I’m here to listen to citizens,” Cloud said.

The message from members of law enforcement was of one voice. Illegal immigration in Texas supports and is promoted by human smuggling and trafficking, criminal organizations and violence, they said.

Panel members included Samuel Briggs II, a U.S. Border Patrol agent in charge at the organization’s Corpus Christi Station; Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O’Connor; Victoria County Chief Deputy Roy Boyd; Brad Scott, a Homeland Security Investigations assistant special agent in charge; Mike McDaniel, director of the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area; Joe Braman, special deputy for Victoria and Refugio counties’ sheriff’s offices; and Norm Renfro, a Goliad property owner.

During the almost two-hour panel, law enforcement officials discussed impacts of illegal immigration that may have escaped the attention of everyday citizens.

For many in the audience, the opportunity to hear from law enforcement officials whose work is investigating such criminal activity was a privilege.

“I kind of equate that with a criminal version of the underground railroad,” Rush said.

“These are people who are working on the front lines,” Cole said.

While some on the panel agreed that many crossing illegally were simply seeking a better life, they said many if not most of those immigrants were made victims of sophisticated Mexican and Central American organized criminal organizations.

For those seeking a better life, making the trek through miles of treacherous wilderness at the mercy of smugglers and criminals can be deadly, Briggs said.

And even after crossing into the U.S., immigrants can find themselves still under the control of organized criminal organizations, Boyd said.

For example, smugglers and traffickers sometimes require immigrants to work illegally after crossing in otherwise legitimate businesses as virtual slaves, Boyd said.

Some, he said, are sexually assaulted. Others are made to hand over their wages as payment for their crossing, he said.

Describing it as a kind of modern day slavery, Boyd said, that arrangement is not only pervasive but also hidden from the public.

“It’s something we don’t see,” he said.

With that problem outlined, the panelists moved their discussion to solutions.

Panelists identified the dramatic politicization of illegal immigration in national discussions as a serious obstacle to overcome in solving the current border crisis.

Residents, O’Connor said, should educate themselves and make up their own minds instead of simply believing what politicians tell them.

“Don’t make it political. Get involved,” said O’Connor, who asked residents to put pressure on their elected officials.

Cloud said the nation must first address the immediate crisis before addressing underlying causes to illegal immigration.

He also pointed out a need to reform the nation’s legal immigration process.

But Cole wondered why elected officials should wait to address the underlying issues.

“I don’t understand why both can’t happen simultaneously,” she said.

As the husband of a legal immigrant, Cloud said his wife’s road to citizenship took about seven years.

His wife’s citizenship was a “streamlined” process, he said, and some who took the oath at her citizenship ceremony had waited 25 years.

Sherri Strickland, a 57-year-old Victoria real estate company owner who identifies as a political independent, said she was appalled by that wait.

“Twenty-five years? That’s ridiculous. I would have been an illegal immigrant if it was that long,” she said.

Jon Wilcox reports on courts for the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached jwilcox@vicad.com or 361-580-6515.

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Jon covers crime, public safety and the courts at the Victoria Advocate. Born in Huntsville, Ala., he grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas State University.

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