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Preparing for the Orange Menace in South Texas

Life in the Rio Grande Valley
by Aaron Cantú

Mar 29, 2017 | Politics

Georgia Army National Guard photo by Maj. Will Cox

In the Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost part of Texas where around 1.3 million people live, President Trump’s January 25 Executive Order on border security and immigration came down like a sledgehammer, with subsequent policies landing like overkill. The mid-February Department of Homeland Security directives that followed have local organizers afraid that, for the first time, they’ll have to prepare their hundreds of constituents for deportation. The wall, orders to deport undocumented people suspected of committing minor crimes, the rapid militarization of the area—from the new $33 million checkpoint for Customs and Border Patrol about 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border to upwards of 1,000 new CBP agents—and the general loss of investment from Mexican nationals will all bear heavily on the Valley. Then there’s the proposal for harsher vetting for asylum seekers and Trump’s second attempt at a Muslim ban in mid-March—which also would suspend the refugee program. Taken together, this package of policies would affect the region like few other federal mandates ever have.

Things are changing rapidly, but when I traveled back to the region in mid-December, I caught a glimpse of where things stood before the reality of the new administration had settled in.

The Valley, and particularly the city of McAllen, made headlines in recent years as a point of entry for refugees and asylum seekers coming into the country from Central America. Since the summer of 2014 the city has hosted thousands of refugees at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s community center in the heart of the city. The church sits among small commercial buildings with hand-painted signs advertising tax services and loans, and people mill around inside the large tents in the church parking lot. Blue tarps cover some of the fencing surrounding the parking lot, but children still peek out to catch glimpses of passing traffic.

When I visited, volunteers were sorting through mountains of clothes stacked almost to the ceiling, organizing garments by size to distribute to migrants who crossed the border with few possessions. Up until this past February, at least dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of people without proper documentation to enter the country passed through Sacred Heart each day, often after having traveled for weeks or even months, their shoelaces removed by immigration officials and their clothes in need of a wash. All were sent to Sacred Heart after being processed at an overcrowded local detention center by Customs and Border Protection, who transported them there after apprehending them at the border. Families were given priority by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for release from the center to Sacred Heart; other migrants determined to be less vulnerable were often shipped to another government-run facility or deported outright. Still, some at Sacred Heart wore ankle monitors, to ensure they attended their immigration hearings in the future.

Life in these enclaves of undocumented workers has never been easy.

“We’re here because there’s a need,” Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director for Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley, told me back in December. “If for some reason these people can’t come in and Border Patrol does not process them, and there is no need to help them, we won’t have to be here.”

After people stay a night or two at the church, Pimentel says they’re encouraged to make arrangements to stay with family or friends elsewhere in the country. Most will purchase one-way tickets at the local bus station to wherever they plan to wait for their “credible fear” hearing in front of an immigration judge, who will approve or deny their applications for asylum. (Usually, they are denied.)

Allowing the families to leave the detention center and await their trials elsewhere is part of the “catch and release” strategy that ends with the February memos issued by DHS Secretary John Kelly. Instead, the government appears to be pursuing a policy of holding people apprehended at the border in federal detention until their hearings, which it is in the process of expediting. That might eventually mean no Sacred Heart, no bus tickets, and no Sister Norma Pimentel to help families navigate their arrival in this country.

Speaking with me on March 21, Pimentel said she had seen a dramatic drop in the number of migrants coming to Sacred Heart per day—from a high of several hundred at the end of last year, to as low as two or three now. She suggested that fewer people may be attempting to cross into the United States, but pro-bono attorneys in Texas who represent immigrants and refugees have reported an increase in the number of families held at two privately run detention facilities in South Texas, Karnes and Dilley. (There are 12 detention facilities south of San Antonio, including a newly opened facility in Donna, Texas, that can hold up to 500 people.) When asked whether more families who would normally be released to Sacred Heart are being detained or deported outright, a spokesperson at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection referred me to the Central South Texas Immigrations and Customs Enforcement office, which did not respond to several voicemails.

Refugees making asylum claims aren’t the only people in the Valley who have more reason to fear the feds these days. Around 9 percent of all undocumented people in Texas live in Hidalgo and Cameron counties, the Valley’s two most populous counties, and at least a fifth of the undocumented populations in both counties have lived there for 20 years or longer. Some live in unincorporated settlements known as colonias, which dot the border and are among the poorest communities in the country.

The primary means of income for colonia residents who can find work is seasonal—fieldwork, construction, and factory work. Life in these enclaves of undocumented workers has never been easy. People who want to build homes in these unincorporated lands typically do so through predatory schemes wherein a seller will contract to sell parcels to a buyer without providing a deed to the land, which allows the developer to charge higher interest rates and immediately reclaim the property in the event of missed payments. Buyers often prefer these arrangements because they do not meet the criteria for taking out a traditional mortgage loan—they may lack the funds or credit ratings to finance a down payment, or may be wary of drawing attention to someone’s immigration status. Sellers do not have to guarantee that buildings on the land meet county building codes. They’re also under no obligation to maintain running water and sewage systems, which locals have to improvise, leading to compounding health problems for residents.

Because many colonias are know to be populated by undocumented residents, people fear that immigration raids will “disappear” older, undocumented family members who’ve lived in the area for decades.

‘We cannot overreact or panic, but we have to be ready for what could come.’

“Children have come home and they ask, ‘What’s going to happen?’ Is my parent going to be home when I get home?’” says Lourdes Flores, the President of A Resource In Supporting Equality (ARISE), an organization that offers political and social education for youth and adults living in some colonias. The rapidly changing climate in Washington has nearly overwhelmed the small non-profit, but Flores says they’re trying to focus on the most pressing needs, including a public campaign for improved drainage services.

“We cannot overreact or panic, but we have to be ready for what could come, and that’s part of the education we’ve already been doing,” Flores said.

ARISE is also part of a wider coalition of community-based organizations in the Valley, called the Equal Voice Network, whose website describes the region as “the poorest in the United States,” with a record rate of population growth and extremely young population as reasons the Valley could serve as a “powerful base for social change.” Another organization under the Equal Voice Network umbrella, La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), has organized for years in dozens of the Valley’s colonias but is scrambling to organize its constituents to prepare for the crisis that will follow implementation of Trump’s executive orders.

“So many families in our region have mixed immigration status, almost everybody has an immigrant in their families,” says John Michael Torres, an organizer with LUPE. “We are organizing sanctuary spaces in our neighborhoods, our organizations—and at the city level by pushing for better policies.”

LUPE’s policy agenda includes a push for local law enforcement to resist national and state efforts to deputize police as deportation agents, a Clinton-era program known as 287(g) that President Trump doubled-down on in his executive order. Under Obama, the program led to the deportation of tens of thousands, and in a memo from February 20 DHS Secretary John Kelly called the program a “highly successful force multiplier” in extending ICE’s reach by granting local police the authority to “investigate, identify, apprehend, arrest, detain, and conduct searches” of suspected undocumented people. In previous years, the 287(g) program’s main point of enforcement took place when local police complied with ICE-issued “detainers,” which requested that police hold an apprehended undocumented person until ICE officials could come and retrieve them. While McAllen mayor Jim Darling has said that McAllen police would comply with such requests, McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez has said his officers would not actively seek to determine the immigration status of locals who haven’t been apprehended under normal criminal pretenses.

Pressure for police to act as de facto immigration enforcers is also coming from the Texas Legislature, where the Senate recently passed a bill that would deny state grant money to cities, counties, and colleges whose police officers fail to provide ICE with information about apprehended undocumented people. Even more extreme, it would allow the state to prosecute local police officials who failed to enforce immigration laws, a bizarre situation in a federal system where a state would use its powers to coerce local governments into carrying out federal policy. At a recent hearing in front of the state Senate, where hundreds of people testified in opposition to the law, police chiefs from Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso complained that their under-resourced departments are not equipped to cross-check the legal status of every person they come into contact with against federal immigration databases, and also worried that these police-state responsibilities would erode trust with immigrant communities. But the federal government has begun shining a harsh light on noncompliant Texas counties: In its first report on localities that refused to honor ICE detainers, Travis County (where Austin is located) was featured far more frequently than any other municipalities spotlighted. And in late January, federal agents warned two magistrate judges in Austin that the city would be targeted for enhanced deportation raids as retribution for the county sheriff’s decision to limit cooperation with ICE.

21st century nativists are seizing on the failures of neoliberal capitalism to peddle a white ethno-state fantasy as a panacea.

It remains to be seen if unified local resistance will be enough to guard against rising state-facilitated xenophobia across the state and the nation. Although conservatives in Texas have historically taken a more accommodating approach to immigration than their counterparts in other areas, an influx of white residents from out of state over the last two decades has pushed state Republicans to adopt a nativist position more in line with the Trump administration’s hard line against brown people from the south. Ripping on immigrants has never been more politically advantageous in Texas than it is now.

And ultimately, that’s what this is all about. Unable to present a real solution to collapsing incomes and standards of living across the Western world, 21st century nativists are seizing on the failures of neoliberal capitalism to peddle a white ethno-state fantasy as a panacea without threatening the relative power of the ownership classes. The rabid emotionalism and senselessness of anti-immigrant policy is clearest in the symbolism of the $21.6 billion border wall, which satisfies the racist sensibilities of whites who see their majorities dwindling around the country but appears monstrous and illogical to people who actually live on the border.

“The closer you get to the border, the more people despise the wall and are disgusted by it,” says Scott Nicol, the co-chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands organization. In recent weeks, Nicol has heard of the federal government issuing more land condemnations in South Texas so it can seize land to continue building segments of the wall—some pieces of which were already laid down under President George W. Bush’s tenure.

Back then, Nicol says, the federal government waived 37 federal laws to build the wall, including the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Native American Repatriation Act. Another major hazard is flooding: Because the federal government wants to build the wall in the Rio Grande flood plane, the wall would act as a dam for overflows of the riverbanks, possibly pushing out streams of water into nearby communities (including colonias) on both sides of the border and saturating wildlife habitats with run-off water.

Beyond its clear potential for material destruction, the wall also signals malevolent neglect to the people who live near it, according to Lourdes Flores from ARISE.

“It’s frustrating that millions of dollars are going to be spent on something that isn’t going to work,” she says. “Education, infrastructure, better transportation systems, our local college and medical school, there are so many things that money could be used for instead of being spent on something that’s not going to work and that can break, that can fall.”

It’s a desperate time for many in the Valley, but the sense of urgency has catalyzed a level of organizing and engagement that is new for the area. At least one new bilingual multimedia project, Neta, has coalesced in order to amplify “the voices of border residents aimed to challenge mainstream narratives” about the region, and others are doing advocacy work for the first time in their lives. There is a sense of malleability about the future, and a renewed will to struggle for it.


Aaron Cantú is a journalist based in New York City and a contributor to the book Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket, 2016).

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