Frontera/Frontier: Chaos at the US-Mexico Border
I went to the Rio Grande Valley during spring break 2019 as a guest artist with Kitchen Dog Theater and Cry Havoc Theater Company from Dallas; they’re producing a performance in July 2019 called Crossing the Line. The ensemble includes a troupe of students from throughout Dallas. My teenage daughter traveled with us. Together—over six days—we interviewed dozens of people about immigration: refugees and immigrants in camps, bridges, detention centers, and bus stations; ICE officials; public defenders and federal judges; artists and dragtivists; priests and nuns; water station replenishers, human rights watchers; and angry tias y abuelas.
The border between the United States and Mexico is the new American frontier. Immigrants, refugees, poor people wanting in, wanting to work, to educate their children are jailed for crossing the river. They disappear. They die. But thousands make it across. Every single day.
Keep crossing, hermanas. We have plenty of room.
When the president declared a national emergency along the US-Mexico border in February, 2019, my mom, who lives in the Rio Grande Valley, said: “Que national emergency? I’m still getting take-out at Luby’s and milk at H-E-B.” Border residents are not in imminent danger, exclamation point. The murder rate in McAllen, Texas in 2018, for example, was zero. What’s happening at the border is administrative chaos.
The Rio Grande River, known en el otro lado as el Rio Bravo, is an immigrant’s baptismal font. They don’t carry much when they cross: a backpack maybe; a sponsor’s phone number etched into memory or pinned to clothes like a kindergarten note; and dreams bigger than Tejas. They cross by lancha, small boats, then wade along the banks. Some surrender to the Border Patrol, crossing clothes wet from muck and their hands in the air. They are handcuffed, “processed,” and kept in la heladera, a holding cell kept ice cold, for up to 48 hours. Their shoes are stripped of shoelaces.
Some wait en el otro lado at encampments, like one I visited in Matamoros. No running water. Tents with holes, a cement slab, and little privacy. At the bridge, asylum seekers wait for their name to be called. The Border Patrol has a guard-stand right on the bridge, inches into US territory; they echo the president: “We have no room.” The process of “waiting until your number is up” is random; some refugees sleep on the bridge because they do not want to miss their turn. They wait weeks, sometimes months, for their number to be called to claim asylum. Nothing is guaranteed, not even their liberty once they enter the United States.
They are refugees seeking una entrevista de miedo, a credible fear interview.
Tell everyone your story, imigrantes. The time to speak is now.
We meet “C,” 38, from Honduras. He has been waiting in line for over a month to tell his story, but he is afraid to talk. He says you never know who may be listening and hurt his family back home. He says that in his home country the rich steal from the poor. He can’t find work. He wants to enter the US legally, so he does it right the first time and waits for his turn at the bridge. He says he has sacrificed too much to get here and is grateful to be at the encampment, where the owner does not run them off. His eight year-old half-brother, abandoned by his mom, is with him. They sleep on the bridge alongside a man from Venezuela and two women from Guatemala. Dozens more wait at the encampment about 50 yards from the bridge. “C” was alerted that he and his brother were “next in line,” with no guarantee when they would be called—maybe hours, maybe days. Odds are the brothers will be separated once they are able to cross to este lado, especially since “C” says he has nothing to prove they are brothers. I give him my phone number and ask him to call me with an update once he makes it across. He hasn’t called.
A System In Chaos
What happens once an immigrant or refugee crosses into the United States depends on many variables: Are you alone? With children? Man? Woman? Child? Are you claiming asylum? Is this your first, second, third time caught crossing? Have you committed any other offense in the United States? Are you in the custody of the Border Control? Or Immigration and Customs Enforcement? Maybe you’re held by a coyote at a “stash-house" until you can pay for your release. Maybe you made it and are working at a local construction site and sending money home via PayPal.
Currently, detained individuals appear in court; families are released after “processing” to bus station “transit centers” and moved throughout the United States to waiting sponsors. Sometimes families rest for a day or two at a half-way house, like the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. They arrive, hundreds at a time, in wet shoes without laces.
We meet “K” from Guatemala at the center. She arrived two days earlier with her three kids and was departing the next day to family sponsors in Washington, D.C. I help her in the kitchen. She was given an “A” number, a processing tag that tracks her status and location, and a date to appear in an immigration court located close to her sponsor. Hundreds of people like “K” arrive at the Catholic Charities Respite Center every day. They receive soup and bread from The Salvation Army, a change of clothes, a clean towel, a shower, and a gym mat to rest on. There’s only one working washing machine. One thousand sandwiches are made daily. I was there for almost three hours and saw constant mopping and cleaning by the immigrants themselves.
They are not here for hand-outs. They want to work and provide for their children.
“K” and I served a young mother and her young child covered with red bumps, maybe chicken pox, unconfirmed. No medical staff at the center meant the child’s mother was given a prayer plus an over-the-counter anti-itch cream.
In February 2019, city commissioners in McAllen voted to relocate the center, due to complaints from neighborhood residents. As of April, 2019, the center remains open in the same repurposed nursing home as before, understaffed, and with limited resources.
Crossing into the United States without documentation is a misdemeanor. Like “K,” many families who surrender to the Border Patrol are now let go after “processing” and expected in court at a later date, but some individuals are detained and taken directly into court in the same clothes worn when they crossed. Immigration policies change weekly, so “processing” is subject to change without warning. With no clear immigration reform and elected officials claiming that a border wall would solve the humanitarian crisis, it’s administrative chaos at the border.
In court, detained individuals answer questions in unison like a Greek chorus chanting in front of the magistrate. The court is kept cold, reminiscent of la heladera. Immigrants are shackled at the ankle, waist, and left hand. The right hand remains free to swear to tell the truth. A dozen or so men with guns stand at arms while a trio of interpreters in suits translate everything into Spanish. One has a heavy Texas accent—think John Wayne meets Ted Cruz while drinking a Shiner. His voice causes me to laugh inside every time I hear it. The shackled wear ear plugs that need frequent switching. I wonder how many speak a third language.
According to an ICE official we talked to, “voluntary returns” will be in custody for only a few hours. If they are Mexican nationals, they are walked across the bridge. If they are OTM, Other Than Mexican, they are detained, sometimes for a month or two, until they “have enough people to load a plane. It’s not a sentence. It’s administrative detention.”
The defendants keep their heads bowed as if in prayer. We hear 23 cases at the Magistrate’s court in McAllen during a “slow” morning session on Wednesday, March 13, 2019: “There are usually dozens more [cases].”
Eleazar, a 36-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Laredo
Abel, an 18-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Omar, a 29-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Carlos, a 24-year-old man from Honduras. Point of Entry: Donna
Jose, a 29-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Antonio, a 21-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Roma
Joel, a 32-year-old man from Honduras. Point of Entry: Hidalgo
Martin, a 44-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Donna
Francis, a 24-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Adan, a 46-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Nina, a 28-year-old woman from Honduras. Point of Entry: Hidalgo
Fidel, a 20-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Emilio, a 29-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Rio Grande City
Elian, a 35-year-old man from El Salvador. Point of Entry: Hidalgo
Carlos, a 41-year-old man from Honduras. Point of Entry: Los Ebanos
Juan, a 34-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Luis, a 37-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Roma
Pancho, a 22-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Jose, a 29-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Ollin, an 18-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Alex, a 29-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Abigail, a 24-year-old woman from Mexico. Point of Entry: Los Ebanos
Orlando, a 26-year-old man from Honduras. Point of Entry: Donna
The judge keeps saying to the defendants, “You need to make a life for yourself in Mexico.” During our interview with ICE in McAllen, we are told: “ICE does not have anything to do with separating families. What we are doing is babysitting while their parents are processed.” The public defender in McAllen says, “Everyday they are still separating children. They are still doing it.”
The next day, in “Baby Court,” we see three boys, aged 16, 16, and 15, awaiting trial without guardians in a country they do not know, in a language they cannot understand. They wear school uniforms and crewcuts; unlike the immigrants at the Respite Center, they look well cared for despite tight jaws and unflinching stares. For two out of the three, Spanish is not their primary language. One speaks Mam and the other Chuj, Mayan languages spoken primarily in Guatemala and southern Mexico. One does not know his year of birth.
The teens are represented by the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR). They are ready for court before the judge arrives. We have waited almost 30 minutes for the trial to begin when a white man in a tan suit and a “Defend the Alamo” tie enters the courtroom with a milk crate file system—the federal prosecutor. He wears an ICE lanyard. As I stare at his Alamo tie, I think about a federal prosecutor romanticizing a frontier myth about land stolen from Mejicanos to build an American identity. Today, we steal their dignity and hope.
“Why are you late?” asks the presiding judge. “Don’t make it a habit."
I look over to the 15 year-old. He clenches three crosses around his neck. In court, he is classified as an “unaccompanied alien.” The three are handed papers by a clerk speaking Spanish: “The blue is a change of court date form; the purple is to change the hearing location.” The clerk continues in Spanish: “If you miss your court date, you will be ordered removed from the country. Do you understand?” The court, having tried but failed to secure Mam and Chuj translators via InterpreTalk, reset their court dates to try again.
The frontera/frontier starts at the actual border at the Rio Grande and extends to over 30 interior checkpoints located en este lado, miles from the river. Two major highways lead out of the Rio Grande Valley, with checkpoints in Brooks County out of Falfurrias on Highway 281, and south of Sarita in Kenedy County on US Route 77. According to our American Civil Liberties Union guide in Brownsville: “Within 50 miles, you have less civil rights than in the rest of the country. Border communities are complicated. You can be asked for your documents. It’s perfectly legal.”
You get used to this growing up in the Rio Grande Valley. When I crossed into Reynosa on Friday nights in the late 1980s, I carried my birth certificate in my pocket, just in case. Most didn’t, though; back then, we crossed back and forth, no worries. Everything changed after 9/11. Then the cartels happened. Now, the “safe” point of entry for locals and Winter Texans is at Progreso-Nuevo Progreso where “Margarita Day” is celebrated and prescription drugs don’t need a prescription. Back then, the interior checkpoints, like the one in Falfurrias, were shut down if the staff went to lunch. Now, they never close.
The South Texas landscape in Brooks County and surrounding areas is brush made up of thick mesquite and cacti. Texas ranches located in these brush lands are huge, some covering over 300,000 acres. The US’s “Zero Tolerance” policies have forced immigrants to traverse the brush and circumvent the checkpoints, where many have gone missing. The South Texas Human Rights Center, headquartered in Falfurrias, works to replenish water stations located on private ranches. They also work to reunite families with remains of loved ones who have gone missing in the brush.
Founded in 2013 by Eduardo Canales, this organization started as a community response to mass graves for unidentified migrants in Brooks County. The group discovered that DNA samples were not taken before burial and reunification with families was nearly impossible. DNA samples are now taken. The organization has grown to aiding immigrants by providing water stations along private ranches and by providing search and rescue investigations for families needing answers.
Ariana, a staff advocate with the center, explains: “People are being dropped along the [Farm to Market Road] 755, south of the checkpoint, and being forced to walk through private ranch land, which means no one is picking them up. Border Patrol needs permission to even go in there. From what we’ve heard, the fastest someone has walked across that ranch land is three days. Sometimes they get dropped off and told the walk will take them 20 minutes, then somebody will pick them up. They are not prepared for this walk. They walk for days. And once you’re in there, it’s a maze.”
Going out into the brush with Ariana to replenish water stations, you feel the vastness of the land. Cell phone coverage is minimal, with nothing but mesquite in sight. The land is dry and the heat intense. It’s a quiet South Texas landscape that masks the horror of over 800 migrants losing their lives while trying to make it across.
Back in McAllen, we’re at a Starbucks talking to a reporter with the national media about the situation at the border: “From far away, it’s easier to understand the border,” he says. “It’s more simplistic the farther away you are. But the closer in you get, and when you’re on the ground, the harder it is to make sense of what is going on. It’s vague. It’s tricky. It’s complicated, nuanced. It’s a hard thing to write about because it doesn’t want to be nailed down and it can’t be nailed down … maybe. This region divides the country. People who have never been here and think they know what it’s about … they are very opinionated about it.”
As I’m listening, I’m sipping lukewarm dark roast after spending the week meeting and talking to people on the border about the border. I’m from the border and I still don’t understand what the hell’s going on. Why are people dying? Why do we make it so hard for people to be American?
The public defender warns: “This is one of the darkest chapters in American history. What’s going to happen to the children? They’re still looking for the parents. The parental rights will be terminated. They ask the kids: ‘What’s your mom’s name?’ [The kids answer], ‘Mama.’ They’re separated by deception. [They tell the parents]: ‘We’re taking them for a bath.’ Parents were not told. Our constitution protects anyone within our borders. It costs $300 every day to keep a child. People are still coming because they think [that one day] the border will close completely.”
The public defender continues: “Legal residents need to become US citizens. Any little thing can happen and they can be sent back.” My mother, a US resident most of her life, with no immediate family in Mexico, is at risk. I realize I am part of a mixed-status family.
Back home, in San Antonio, I teach writing at a community college. Within weeks of my visit to the Rio Grande Valley, a student asks: “Miss, I mean profe, can you help me with writing?”
“Pos, that's what I'm here to do,” I say.
“This is not a class assignment,” he says, “it's a personal letter.”
“Let's go for it. Who you writing to?” I ask. I was hoping it was gonna be a love letter.
The student says, “A judge. It's my brother-in-law. He was caught crossing. Third time. Now they're gonna send him to jail and deport him. He's a good guy. Family guy. Comes home after work. Kids. Will they send him back?” he asked.
In my head I know they’re gonna send him back. That's what they do. Any other record?
“No, nada. He's a good guy. Treats my sister good. Earns good money. He's like American but no papers. Todos on this side. What's gonna happen?”
“Let's write that letter, mijo,” I say. I called him mijo.