Politics

As Gov. Greg Abbott beefs up border enforcement, some locals want very different kinds of help

Amid the heated rhetoric around an increase in migrants, people on opposite ends of the Texas-Mexico border see the problems — and solutions — differently.

MCALLEN 一 On a late July afternoon, a director and an officer with the Texas Department of Public Safety met with Sister Norma Pimentel and Rev. Mario Alberto Avilés of the Brownsville Diocese to tell them that Gov. Greg Abbott’s new executive order meant that Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley could no longer transport migrants.

The DPS officials told Pimentel that once Abbott’s order went into effect, troopers would constantly watch Catholic Charities’ shelter in McAllen, the largest in the area for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., according to a brief the shelter filed in court as part of a federal lawsuit against the governor.

If troopers saw shelter employees and volunteers transporting migrants, they would pull over and impound the vehicle, the director told Avilés and Pimentel, the shelter’s executive director.

In the court documents, Pimentel said if the shelter couldn’t transport migrants to the nearby airport or a hotel, the shelter would become overcrowded — and increase the risk of COVID-19 if staff could not transport infected migrants to a hotel to be isolated.

“We would have to turn away mothers and babies who are seeking temporary shelter, food, and medical assistance,” she said. “If we cannot provide humanitarian aid, it is my understanding that these families would likely be left to their own devices on the street, without access to food, shelter and medical care.”

As immigration issues continue to roil President Joe Biden’s administration and spark debates across the country, Abbott has issued a disaster declaration for many border counties — a move usually reserved for natural disasters — and pressed a series of Texas-based initiatives to combat what he has described as a crisis caused by the president’s lax immigration policies.

Abbott’s office is collecting donations to continue building barriers at the Texas-Mexico border. He has sent roughly 1,000 state troopers and Texas Rangers to arrest migrants on state charges, dispatched National Guard to help Border Patrol agents and turned a state prison into an immigrant-only detention center. His order to intercept civilian vehicles transporting migrants was temporarily suspended by a federal judge in El Paso until Aug. 27.

Father Roy Snipes, Priest of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, in Mission on Aug. 3, 2021.
Father Roy Snipes, the priest of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, has opened the church as an overflow shelter for migrants. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

Immigrant advocates and some elected officials in the Rio Grande Valley say the governor’s rhetoric about needing a massive law enforcement response to address an out-of-control border doesn’t match the realities border residents face. Valley officials say they need more COVID-19 test kits and shelter space rather than more state troopers.

“If he would come and spend one day with us, just sit down at the table and eat with these people or come to church and pray with these people, he’ll see, these are not despicable people. These are not vermin. They’re not dangerous. They’re not nefarious, they’re sweet,” said Father Roy Snipes, whose Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission serves as an overflow shelter.

In rural West Texas, meanwhile, local officials say they’d appreciate more of the law enforcement resources that are going to other parts of the border, to help detain immigrants damaging private property and deter what some locals suspect are drug smugglers.

Joanna Mackenzie, the emergency management coordinator for Hudspeth County, a massive county east of El Paso with a population of about 4,400 people, said migrants have become brazen, stealing weapons from a house and breaking windows and doors to steal food and water.

“We carry our guns all the time now because we don’t know who we’re going to run into,” Mackenzie said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that migrants are attempting to enter the country through the Texas-Mexico border in ever-growing numbers. With just over a month left in the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, Border Patrol agents already have had the most encounters with migrants in 21 years.

CBP has recorded 1.3 million encounters with migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, led by the Rio Grande Valley sector with more than 412,000 of them. The agency said it encountered 845,300 unique individuals between October and July. Many migrants attempt to cross the border multiple times, and the number of repeat crossers has jumped from 5% of those apprehended in 2019 to 40% this year, according to the American Immigration Council, a Washington, D.C., a group that advocates for immigrants.https://apps.texastribune.org/features/2019/migrant-texas-border-trump-policies/mini-timeline/

Part of the reason repeat crossings have exploded, immigration experts say, is President Donald Trump’s policy — continued under Biden — of immediately expelling migrants after they’re apprehended. Since the policy was enacted in March 2020 in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Border Patrol agents have expelled more than 840,000 migrants.

Renae Eze, an Abbott spokesperson, said Biden’s policies have created “a magnet for migrants” that Texas now has to address.

“President Biden’s reckless open border policies not only endanger Texans and their communities — it endangers the lives of migrants making the dangerous journey,” she said.

Marian Roblero, a 27-year-old mother of a 7-month-old baby, said she left Guatemala a month ago because she couldn’t find a job. She said she studied physical therapy at a university but without money, she couldn’t finish her studies.

Holding back tears at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, Roblero said people who demonize immigrants “are wrong about us. Maybe because they haven’t had to live through what we’ve experienced. Maybe they’ve never been hungry or cold.”Volume 90% Migrant crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border reached a 21-year high in July. This video takes you to the epicenter: Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where more crossings are happening than in any other region in the country.  The Texas Tribune

Migrants seeking refuge

On a recent Monday morning outside of Catholic Charities in McAllen, many of the migrants dropped off were families wearing surgical masks. Some also wore ankle monitors and most of them carried manila folders with immigration paperwork proving they’ve been allowed to enter the country pending the outcome of their legal cases.

Outside the shelter, taxis awaited migrants heading to the airport or a hotel. Relatives and friends looked for loved ones they hadn’t seen in years to take them to homes in Dallas and Louisiana.

Among them was Edin Galeano, a 37-year-old from Honduras who has lived in Dallas for the past five years and currently works as an Uber driver. He made the nearly eight-hour drive to McAllen after receiving a call days earlier from his wife: She had arrived in the U.S. and would be dropped off at the shelter.

Pacing in blue jeans, a black T-shirt and a black face mask, Galeano anxiously waited to catch sight of his wife and two children, whom he left behind when he emigrated alone.

Galeano, like his wife, said he left Honduras because of the lack of job opportunities. It’s disheartening that Abbott’s policies aren’t more welcoming, he said.

“I ask that people put themselves in the shoes of an immigrant and live in the conditions that our country is currently in,” Galeano said, constantly checking his iPhone for a call or message from his wife. “I think family is the biggest love anybody can have, and anyone is willing to do anything for their family.”

From left: Jose Alfredo Ledezma, 35, and Idxi Martinez, 24, of Honduras, sit with their one year old daughter outside of Cat…
Jose Alfredo Ledezma, 35, and Idxi Martinez, 24, of Honduras, sit with their daughter outside of Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

Nearby, Jose Alfredo Ledezma, 35, waited outside the shelter with his wife and 1-year-old daughter for a taxi to give them a ride to a nearby hotel.

Border Patrol allowed the family, who came from Honduras, to enter the country the night before asking for asylum, after they had spent three days under the Anzalduas International Bridge south of McAllen, where Border Patrol agents have set up an outdoor processing center.

There, Idxi Martinez, Ledezma’s wife, said they slept on trash bags on the ground, fighting off mosquitoes.

Getting to the Texas-Mexico border, however, was the most dangerous part, the couple said. Somewhere in Mexico, they said a group of armed men kidnapped them and demanded a $4,500 ransom. Even after they paid the ransom with money family members sent to them, they said the men didn’t let them go. One night they snuck out of the house when the kidnappers left them unattended, they said.

They hope to start a new life in the U.S., where their daughter can get a good education.

“We’re confident in God because we came here with a purpose, to fight for a successful life in this country,” Ledezma said.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez at his office in Edinburg on Aug. 2, 2021.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez at his office in Edinburg. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, who has criticized both the Biden administration and Abbott for how they’ve handled immigration, said the governor’s approach gives a “false portrayal” that the problem is illegal immigration, when in reality, the problem is not having resources to help asylum-seeking migrants who are following a legal immigration process.

Cortez said a wall or more state troopers on the border wouldn’t stop migrants from seeking asylum. The Valley needs resources to help asylum-seekers be processed in a more humane and practical way, he said, rather than packing them into overcrowded shelters and the processing center at the Anzalduas Bridge.

“I’m not saying there is no problem,” he said.

Jesús Gasca, a parishioner and volunteer at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church who immigrated to Texas from Mexico years ago, said the politics around immigration “are detached from what we’re actually doing here.

“The people coming through here are hungry, they’re escaping violence,” he said. “I think what we need instead is to have a little bit of humanity, and be a bit more sensible with people.”

A trail frequented through the harsh terrain by people attempting to avoid detection by the United States Border Patrol. An …
A view of the backcountry near the Texas-Mexico border in Hudspeth County. Local officials say an increase in break-ins, intentionally set fires and rescues of migrants in the rugged countryside have stressed the county’s resources. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

Feeling ignored

The rugged terrain of the Eagle Mountains, located just 30 miles north of Mexico in Hudspeth County, could be a national park because of the green vistas and serene atmosphere, some residents here say.

Along rocky paths that crisscross the mountains, the ground is littered with discarded sleeping bags, T-shirts, water bottles and plastic bags once filled with food, left behind by migrants who have crossed through here to sneak across the border.

According to CBP data, there have been 155,882 migrant encounters in the El Paso sector, which includes Hudspeth County, so far in fiscal 2021. That’s a 290% increase from the same period last fiscal year.

Cattle ranchers and officials here say migrants cut through private property, sometimes breaking into homes to escape the blistering sun or cutting water lines to rehydrate.

Some residents have described seeing men carrying big packs and wearing combat boots and camouflage clothing. They suspect they’re smuggling drugs.

On occasion, migrants have started fires in the mountains to be rescued after injuring themselves or being left behind by their smugglers, known as coyotes. Other times, ranchers find the bodies of migrants who died attempting to cross.

A 66-year-old rancher who requested anonymity out of fear of being targeted by migrants she suspects have connections to drug cartels said she fears who she may run into when she rides through the 100,000-acre property. She will routinely check on the furnished but vacant houses on her ranch to find that migrants have broken in and left the water running in a bathtub, ripped window screens and broken bedroom door locks, she said.

Hudspeth County Administrator Joanna Mackenzie picks up water bottles and a burrito left behind along a trail frequented thr…
First: Hudspeth County Administrator Joanna Mackenzie picks up water bottles and other trash left behind by migrants crossing through the county. Last: Mattresses where migrants slept after breaking into a vacant ranch house in rural Hudspeth County. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

“You just feel very violated,” she said as she drove on her four-wheel Polaris Ranger through her property, picking up items migrants left behind.

It wasn’t always like this, residents say. In years past, ranchers would accept the migrants as part of border-town culture. Regardless of ethnicity, many in this Hispanic-majority county grew up bilingual and would help migrants who would ask for food or water as they passed through the area.

“We grew up letting them go by because we know they are trying to better their life,” said Mackenzie, the county emergency management coordinator.

Hudspeth County Judge Thomas Neely, 93, said that in recent years dealing with the effects of migration has been more costly for the county. He said the sheriff’s office and emergency responders have received an increasing number of search-and-rescue calls to help find migrants — or their bodies.

“I’ve never seen anything this serious, that’s caused this much disruption,” Neely said.

CBP official testified to Congress in July that the agency has recorded more than 300 migrant deaths so far in fiscal year 2021 at the U.S.-Mexico border, compared to 250 deaths for all of fiscal year 2020.

Hudspeth County has just 17 deputies and three staffed ambulances to cover 4,570 square miles — an area nearly the size of Connecticut. When they need help, county officials turn to Texas Rescue Patrol, a nonprofit organization made up of search-and-rescue volunteers.

A barbed wire fence along the Rio Grande is all the separates the United States from Mexico in rural Hudspeth County on Apri…
A barbed wire fence near the Rio Grande is the only barrier facing migrants in one part of Hudspeth County. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

The sheriff’s office has recovered nearly 20 bodies this year, a small number compared to other areas of the border, but a significant jump compared to years past when the county tallied single digits. By comparison, the county has recorded just four COVID-19-related deaths this year.

Mackenzie said that she wishes the National Guard would help Border Patrol agents patrol the area. She said that if there was a bigger law enforcement presence, it would help ranchers feel safer and would help deter migrants from destroying property.

“We just want an acknowledgement that there’s a problem here,” she said.

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