If you have lived and traveled along the Texas-Mexico border for a decent amount of time, you will eventually come to hear a saying that speaks to the culture of La Frontera. The words are rarely dropped into casual conversation but are the outgrowth of impassioned discussions about the convergence of economies and people and history, which are presently being pulled into the torrents of politics. The Rio Grande, nonetheless, is being transformed by a humanitarian crisis into an artificial construct of walls and razor wire and police and soldiers and guns and floating barriers.
Except for those who call it home.
“The river,” they have always said, “has never divided us. It unites us.” I am confident that is true, and have lived along its reaches enough years, and traveled it consistently for many decades as a journalist, to understand how the border is viewed by families and business owners who live and work near the river’s banks. The cultures have been sufficiently similar that a blindfolded traveler might have trouble telling which side of the river where they had been planted after their mask was removed. The river was a seam, not a gash or a wound, between two countries, and it connected histories and economies, instead of acting as a barrier.
“The river,” they have always said, “has never divided us. It unites us.”
All that has changed. The dynamics of economies and immigration and politics that made the border a unique culture are turning it into what amounts to a war zone. The governor of Texas just signed into law a measure to empower state and local police to arrest people in Texas for a new crime of entering the state illegally. This is a kind of “show-me-your-papers” law, the process that managed the control and travel of Jews in pre-war Germany. There is zero doubt police with such unilateral authority will begin to racially profile anyone with brown or black skin they want to stop and question, whether it is on the border or the sidewalks in downtown Dallas. The new Texas law abrogates the federal government’s constitutional authority to manage immigration and protect the borders and is certain to be challenged in the courts, which is exactly what the governor wants.
Abbott is already in the federal appellate courts over two of his Lone Star lunacies. A judge in El Paso ordered the removal of floating barriers in the Rio Grande, which the Texas governor had installed, and in a separate ruling, another magistrate gave the Customs and Border Patrol agents the right to cut razor wire strung along the riverbank, which often put immigrants in desperate situations. Texas’ multi-indicted and impeached Attorney General, Ken Paxton, appealed both rulings to the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which agreed to hear the cases and quickly stayed the lower court orders. Abbott wants the same outcome with his new “show-me-your-papers” law. A similar piece of legislation was overturned by the Supreme Court after Arizona had taken a profiling approach to immigrants in 2010 by ordering police to make an attempt to determine the immigration status of detained individuals. A more conservative court, which exists today, may find for the state and allow local cops to play federal agents, even if the border is not part of their jurisdiction.
The complications of what Abbott and his right wing base have wrought will be profound for border residents and the state of Texas. His Operation Lone Star has already turned Mexican Americans into suspects in their home towns, and many of them have died as a result. According to Human Rights Watch, in the past 29 months 74 people have been killed in vehicle pursuits initiated by state troopers on duty near the border, and 97 percent of those were prompted by petty misdemeanors. Since the $10 billion dollar political stunt was launched, there have been 3600 cop cars racing after drivers for minor infractions, which resulted 189 serious injuries. One death was a seven-year-old girl out to get ice cream with her grandmother.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit the day after the governor signed the law by claiming it was unconstitutional and discriminated against communities of color. The arguments against such a statute are many and manifest. Texas judges would be able to order a person’s deportation almost completely without due process, and before they had even had time to make their claims for humanitarian asylum because of political oppression or fear for their lives in their home countries. These rulings could be made from the bench by judges who have no training in immigration law. Further, there is already a shortage of magistrates to hear the tens of thousands of cases Texas is backing up by arresting migrants for trespassing on private property. Normally, that arrest ends with personal recognizance release and a court date, but immigrants are tossed in prisons here and held without bond until an attorney can be assigned their case.
If Abbott’s discriminatory law is allowed to go into effect in March, the cascade of ramifications will cause endless legal and cultural crises. Hispanic Texans, already apprehensive about police in many communities, will likely withdraw further from law enforcement for fear of being randomly discriminated against based solely upon appearance. Solving crime becomes more difficult because black and brown Texans are almost certain to become more distrustful of police and will resist providing them information. A wrong answer can lead to a demand to see your identification, and regardless of its legality, could lead to the officer taking you before a judge, and the shortage of magistrates to hear such petty cases will be dramatic and add further logjams to already backed up processing of immigration cases.
What Greg Abbott and the GOP legislature are doing is not helping to end the border crisis. Complications will abound. Mexico will not take back immigrants from state authorities, most likely, and will only deal with official U.S. government processed returnees. There will be no room in jails, court dockets packed for years, and abuses of civil rights caused by frustrated law enforcement and bad laws. The immigrants will also keep coming, probably in rising numbers. It has nothing to do with Biden’s laws, either, or Trump’s. Third World and oppressed countries in Central America, victims of American imperialism and CIA coups, have never recovered economically. The drug economy flourished, and now entire parts of a continent need massive investments in jobs and infrastructure while America, instead, invests billions in wars.
The border crisis belongs to every American.
James Moore Interview with KPFK Radio in Los Angeles on the New Texas "Show Me Your Papers Law."