In 2014, I was contacted by business and community groups in the Rio Grande Valley about an emerging problem they were dealing with on the border. Almost inexplicably, tens of thousands of children were arriving at the south bank of the Rio Grande and making their way across the river to illegally enter the U.S. Most of the young immigrants appeared to have arrived from Central American countries and had traversed much of Mexico on foot or had jumped a ride on the dangerous northbound freight train known as “la beastia.”
My background is not in diplomatic relations, but I know much about the Texas-Mexico border and how the media works. Various interests in the Rio Grande Valley, a region of 40 cities spread along a 120-mile stretch of the big river from Rio Grande City to Brownsville, were concerned with negative stories coming out of their region. “El Valle,” in fact, was booming, economically. Multi-national corporations were visiting constantly to assess adjacencies to Mexican markets and labor and to size up the infrastructure to get their products northward to American consumers. Scary headlines and dramatic network live shots were likely not telling the full story.
Which rarely gets told.
My first job in Texas was at a radio station in McAllen. I knew a bit about the state but almost nothing about the border. My new employer seemed determined to frighten the outlander from north of the Mason-Dixon Line with an implication of the risks in my new hometown, and it was my first day on the job.
“Here’s how it is,” Charlie said. “For $25 dollars, I can have you killed.”
“Well, that’s a nice thought to share with the new guy,” I said.
“And for $50 dollars, I can make sure nobody finds the body.”
I did not hurry back to the little portable building we were renting to tell my new bride that I had just been very unsubtly threatened by the man who was my new employer. She had already been given pause by a headline on a national news magazine when we were checking out in the grocery store line. The story rattled off the high rates of cancer, intestinal parasites, outdoor privies, terrible infant mortalities, low per capita income, absurd unemployment, and dozens of other detriments that led the editors to proclaim: “The Rio Grande Valley of Texas: America’s Third World.”
The circumstances are never quite that definitive in any news story, but nuance rarely attracts a reader or a viewer, and that is a problem reports on the border still suffer. In the next two years of reporting for the AM radio station, I certainly learned more than what I could convey in a newscast. There was rarely a week that passed I was not reporting on the discovery of bodies floating in the river or found in root tangles on the north bank. Often, these were children, even babies, whose parents were unable to keep them in a safe grasp as they swam across trying to reach whatever dream was pulling them to America.
There was work, too, for those that survived the normally perilous journey. Usually, these were jobs in the fields or produce houses or janitorial tasks that paid little and were hard for businesses to fill with willing hands. The farmers in that rich bottomland likely would not have made a profit were it not for the undocumented workers planting, fertilizing, weeding, and harvesting their crops. I rode my motorcycle down those long, straight roads along the endless fields and saw crop dusters dropping low and spraying chemicals from beneath their wings to create a mist that settled over workers bent to their tasks with hoes and hands and elbows. Generationally, the chemical treatments to save plants have left decades of pollution in the soil and groundwater and have caused profound problems with birth defects in the four-county region, including anencephaly, the inability of a fetus to properly develop a brain or skull.
I went down to the river several times a month, drawn to its dark risks and natural beauty. Border Patrol agents often took me along as they walked the canebrakes looking for traces of people who had crossed and left clues that might indicate a path others would follow when they stepped onto U.S. soil. We usually saw immigrants crouched in the undercover on the other side, holding plastic bags with their modest belongings, waiting for darkness before they slipped into the water. Their children were the most pitiable. I was one night with a CBP team as they watched a family of five clinging to an inner tube as they kicked it in our direction. The oldest child was a little girl, maybe 8 or 9, and she stood dripping wet, muddy, and crying in front of the uniformed strangers confronting her parents. The two smaller were boys and they shivered silently, soaked, and clearly unable to comprehend a thing. I thought they were too afraid to even cry.
The illegal immigration in the late seventies and early eighties was driven mostly by economic instability in Mexico caused by fluctuation in the value of the peso. A previous generation of Mexican men had been drawn to the U.S. during World War II and after as part of the Bracero Program. Washington had established the policy to create a workforce to replace Americans gone to war. Before the program was terminated in 1964, more than four million Braceros had been employed on temporary labor contracts, and most had returned home. A culture, however, had been established because word spread there were jobs in the states that were difficult to fill for farmers and ranchers and builders and other enterprises. They kept coming, and have not stopped, though their motivations have changed, and the Mexicans have been joined by legions of Central Americans.
Maybe we should consider a new Bracero program. We need laborers.
We moved up the river to Laredo and I began work in television. All along the border there were signs of immigrants disadvantaged in their new country. Land speculators bought up tracts and offered them for nearly endless payments with no electricity or running water. The grim “colonias” that rose in brush country were profligate with disease and suffering and elected regulators and officeholders made almost no effort to control the profiteers. People living without papers made little complaint, and accepted jobs from employers who often refused to pay even legal minimum wages.
The plight of the immigrants became personal when we moved into a single-wide trailer in Webb County. We were on a ranch and less than a mile from the river and there were nights when pebbles bounced off our windows or we heard yelling out beyond the cactus, someone trying to attract our attention. Word had been passed across the river that the rancher, who was our landlord, was married to a Mexican national and was likely to aid anyone who reached his door. They wanted food or water or maybe to replace clothes that had been shredded by straggling through the cactus in the dark. Our trailer was mistaken for the rancher’s home.
“Should we help them?” I asked.
“You can if you want,” he told me.
“Is it against the law?”
“I don’t know what law says you can’t give someone a drink and something to eat when they are hungry and thirsty.”
“What happens? Where do they go?”
“Right out there?” He pointed toward Interstate 35.
“No, the railroad. They walk between the tracks at night when they can’t be seen from the road and then as the sun comes up, they go out into the brush and sleep, and start again when it gets dark. They just want to get to San Antonio.”
It has never stopped. It likely never will. We built our “shining city on a hill” and asked people not to see the light. I spent the next decades reporting on the border, loving, and hating it, traveling the frontier from end to end. I still do. The suffering tends to outweigh the joys but the people who have lived near the river believed it was a thread that stitched together two countries, not a wall between peoples and their histories and economies. On weekends, we explored the border towns and took overnight trips to the mountains and villages like Bustamente, high in the Sierra Occidental. I wondered how hard it must be to leave when such places are your home.
The 2014 rush of children to the valley revealed more than just the economic and crime and political problems south of the border and into Central America. The crisis showed how communities can respond. The cities of McAllen, Harlingen, and Brownsville led the efforts to provide food and shelter for children far from home facing unknown futures. One child had made the trip with a sibling who was not yet two years of age, which made me realize what that part of Texas was facing, was not an immigration crisis; it was a humanitarian crisis. These were not drug smugglers and rapists and robbers and killers. There were children on the American doorstep, frightened, hungry, and mostly alone, and the communities of the Rio Grande Valley cared for them and eased them into what came next. When we began to speak of the situation in different terms, the nature of the news coverage changed and there were more stories of humanity than of manufactured fear. The president made a personal appeal to Mexico to turn back children crossing into their country because of the great dangers in the journey, and the problem began to abate.
And now we have Greg Abbott, and his newest consort, Ron DeSantis.
The Texas governor, who has mastered the politics of anger, has turned the border into a militarized zone. Any mother and child approaching the Texas side of the river will likely suffer cuts and serious wounds trying to get over razor wire. They can be forgiven if the soldiers in camo with weapons of war frighten them to the point where they wish they’d risked living near the drug cartels, instead. If their luck is bad, a Texas DPS trooper might lure them onto private land, giving them the impression, he will offer help. Instead, they are arrested for trespassing and likely to be separated during processing. The mother will be sent to a state prison to await a court date, likely not assigned a lawyer because all the jurisdictions along the border are overwhelmed trying to adjudicate the pettiness of our craven governor. The woman’s baby might end up at Child Protective Services, but there is no guarantee they will be reunited.
Worse, the mother might be put on one of Greg Abbott’s buses and arrive in a northern city without money, food, clothing, or her child. She will join a list of immigrants that have become pawns in the psychotic drama of Abbott’s ambitions to be president. While he claims to want to stop immigration at the border, the Texas governor is helping undocumented people get further into the country, find jobs, and avoid court dates down in Texas jurisdictions. He is, in fact, facilitating assimilation while insisting he is doing the federal government’s job of ending the problem. There is no line item in the Texas budget to spend millions transporting illegal immigrants to northern cities, but Abbott continues to wantonly waste taxpayer dollars on dozens of buses delivering people Washington, D.C., Chicago, and even outside the home of the Vice President. He is, in every sense, trafficking humans who are not legally inside U.S. borders, possibly against their will or even because they have been deceived into boarding buses. Isn’t that kidnapping?
Maybe Abbott should just rent trains with boxcars and tell immigrants they are going to a nice place with food and shelter and showers and work. Texas National Guard troops could line everyone up and make sure the boxcars are being loaded and no questions are answered. Everyone would be reassured things will be fine as soon as they arrive, and their family members will meet them there in a few days. Just for safekeeping, the governor can order the guard members to collect any cash and jewelry and tell the owners it will be returned on their arrival after they’ve settled into their new homes. The trains could run right up next to the border and the National Guard can easily build platforms to make it simple to walk into the box cars and slide the doors shut. Abbott will have his final solution to the border crisis.
But now he has competition to see who can be the most inhumane and vulgar. The governor of Florida is bragging that he sent a couple of planes to Texas to pick up immigrants and fly them to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Ron DeSantis’ state doesn’t even have a border, but he couldn’t let his future competition in the Republican Presidential Primary have all the fun and get all the headlines. Immigrants in San Antonio were reportedly lured onto the planes by an unidentified woman they called “Perla,” who they said offered them food and shelter, a little money, and working permits when they got off the plane in Boston. Instead, they ended up in Martha’s Vineyard, a DeSantis attempt to politically mug the white liberals he thinks populate the island. Just like in Texas, the National Guard was summoned; except their mission was to assist, not intimidate and threaten and detain under false pretenses of trespass.
The people of Martha’s Vineyard provided comfort, food, a bed, translators, and counseling. The wayward travelers, who had no idea where they had been taken, were taken in by the residents of the island and were provided humanitarian services. The fifty Venezuelans, whose number included seven children, were given temporary shelter in a local church while emergency management and social assistance groups pondered a longer-term response. Eventually, they boarded a ferry across to Joint Base Cape Cod where they will receive hygiene kits, nutrition, clothing, health care, mental health, crisis counseling, and general needs assessments. They will not be placed behind bars because they were not confronted by the policies promulgated by the phony Christian hypocrite running Texas government.
I don’t know anyone who thinks there isn’t a crisis at the border. Accusing Joe Biden of maintaining an open border policy, though, is an obscene lie. The border is as closed as it was under Trump and Obama and Bush; there are simply more desperate people making an approach. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol have 45,600 agents employed to stop illegal incursions into the country. USCBP is the largest law enforcement agency in the country and is making a record number of arrests and confiscations of contraband. Abbott, meanwhile, has kept at least 5,000 Texas National Guard soldiers deployed, and an estimated 1600 state troopers, who, according to one report, have earned $68 million in overtime. Abbott keeps saying Texas is doing Joe Biden’s job, but the influx of humanity to Texas does not seem to have slowed.
If there is a solution to this crisis, it isn’t shipping innocent people around like cattle and wasting millions on political transportation stunts. Republicans like Abbott and DeSantis are members of a political party that has offered no indication it is interested in immigration reform laws or border legislation. What they really want is an enemy. Someone to fill the hearts of their followers with fear. An “other” to blame. DeSantis and Abbott will fix nothing. They will raise money and campaign, and they might even win.
But the rest of us will lose.