‘A change of heart’: Shifting sympathies for migrants in Texas border town | US-Mexico border


Hector Guerrero tries to go to the Eagle Pass public golf course once a week.

Due to its location along the Rio Grande, the scenic but all too often deadly river that marks the border between Texas and Mexico, the course is surrounded by various iterations of international fences and bridges.

And inevitably, Guerrero’s weekly round also serves as a front-row seat to watch people cross the international line.

“You just see them and you wonder what their life is like. You know?” he said.

Migrants arrive at Eagle Pass by wading through the Rio Grande, often carrying their children or a backpack full of material possessions. Sometimes they get lost on the golf greens.

But eventually, the U.S. Border Patrol agents catch up to them wherever they are, and Guerrero described how he sometimes sees them being thrown in the middle of the international bridge, kicked out to the Mexican side.

For him, all this is sad. On the one hand, he acknowledges that “these people are in trouble”, probably trying to escape the hurt and suffering at home. On the other, he remarked: “There are so many.

“Every time I’ve been here there’s someone there,” Guerrero told the Guardian from his golf cart. “There are big groups. There could be smaller groups. But there is always someone.

In recent months, Eagle Pass has become a town of strangers. A group traveled far to get here, and it is not uncommon to see migrants walking along the road until a government vehicle pulls up. Ask them where they are from, and many will say Honduras, or Cuba, their goal is to surrender to the authorities and seek asylum as soon as they reach American soil.

Then there’s a second group of foreigners, deployed in uniform to Eagle Pass by hardline Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who says their mission is to “secure” an “overrun” border.

Ahead of the midterm elections, in which Abbott is challenged by Democrat Beto O’Rourke, local hotel parking lots are filled with state troopers and other law enforcement vehicles as Texas poured $4 billion into a border crackdown. By numbers alone, however, Abbott’s infamous Operation Lone Star did little to systematically limit border crossings.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to deport would-be asylum seekers to Mexico now including Venezuelans trying to enter without papers, in a recent policy shift apparently in violation of national and international law, while continuing its long-standing practices of deterrence and surveillance.

Caught between all these competing outside interests are the roughly 29,000 people who actually live in Eagle Pass, who feel decidedly mixed about the migrants whose arrival in their own backyards sparks a national debate on immigration.

“There was, I guess, a change of heart,” said one, Manuel Mello III, chief of the Eagle Pass fire department. “At first, it didn’t bother us. You know, there were only migrants. We’ve had them all our lives. But after a while it became a burden.

For his department, border emergencies seem to never end.

First, he explained, there is a drowning. Then someone is in critical condition, suspected of jumping off a high-speed trailer being chased by Border Patrol. Shortly after, a young woman’s legs were severed in a railroad accident.

Some of the calls involve children. Firefighters find babies and toddlers by the river, already drowned or struggling to breathe.

“Sick leave has increased, and that’s very understandable. [The firefighters] are stressed. Some of them have been seeing this for too long, so I guess part of it is PTSD,” Mello said.

“It’s heartbreaking to see a child of this age die by the river and then come home and tell your children about it.”

The wider community also lives under this constant specter of migrant deaths, and some residents feel conflicted over how law enforcement officials are handling the situation.

For example, Rosalinda Medrano remembers hearing a radio report about a Border Patrol agent who saw someone drowning nearby, but didn’t help.

“It brought me a sadness about being a human. You know, what kind of person has that job?” she said.

Medrano has worked for several years as a clinician for unaccompanied migrant children, and she has developed a deeper understanding of how families flee unlivable conditions in their country of origin in the United States, seeking safety.

“I wish it was a lot easier, if they apply for asylum, for them to cross over,” she said. “But at the same time, an incredible number of individuals are crossing.”

Research suggests that radical deterrence policies do not end migration. Instead, they funnel vulnerable migrants who will come to far more dangerous places anyway, like the Rio Grande or the desert beyond.

But at the fire station, Mello still believes the feds could “step up a bit more” and “put a stop” to “this madness.”

Eagle Pass has long been a stopover for non-citizens to reach other parts of the United States, and the community has traditionally accepted most of the time.

Pepe Aranda, the former mayor of Eagle Pass who also served as a county judge, has memories of migrants when he was just three or four years old. People were running past his house after crossing the river, but his mother told him not to worry. They were just passing through, looking for work.

And when Medrano was a child, his mother would bring tacos and water to people hiding in the tall grass near their homes.

Migrants rest after crossing the Rio Grande while waiting to be apprehended by Border Patrol agents in Eagle Pass, Texas. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

But in recent years, as more and more people have begun to pass through the small town, public opinion has changed.

The Regional Border Patrol sector that includes Eagle Pass has now reported that it has passed the Rio Grande Valley sector further southeast for the greatest number of apprehensions of those illegally crossing the border until present in fiscal year 2022, sometimes more than 1,000 people per day. .

Aranda said: “People don’t really have a clear idea that they are [often] seek asylum, okay? They’re all watching ‘Everyone who comes is “bad men”, bad people. They are here to do all the wrong things.

Right-wing media broadcast and publish clickbait coverage that appeals to an anti-immigration stance, and on social media Aranda’s friends post dehumanizing images alerting their community to groups of migrants who have just arrived, such as if they were dangerous and needed to be watched, watchful-style.

Part of this vitriol is a new trend, which Aranda attributes to the rise of Trumpism. But discrimination more broadly has always been a factor in the lives of brown people in Texas.

“Why do we treat them differently? Aranda asked. “Well, it has to come back [a long way]. We have always been treated differently.

Much of the loudest anti-immigrant rhetoric comes from the younger generations, many of whom work in law enforcement or whose friends or spouses are on Border Patrol. For them, immigration is not just a political issue, it is what pays the bills.

Meanwhile, a brand new Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) facility at Eagle Pass is bright, shiny and grand, dwarfing the old DPS outpost just down the road.

Since March 2021, the DPS has been managing Abbott’s controversial Lone Star operation alongside the Texas Military Department. For migrants, this has meant de facto state rather than federal immigration enforcement, using the mechanism of arrests and jail time for trespassing on private property that falls under departmental jurisdiction. – in a state where about 95% of the land is privately owned. .

However, for local workers, entrepreneurs and business owners, the heavy-handed Operation Lone Star and border control more generally has represented an economic opportunity. This new DPS building required materials and labor to construct, and in budget hotels where soldiers spend the night, single rooms now cost hundreds of dollars.

In a small town where more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty, this influx of money matters.

Even the fire department is getting $400,000 from Abbott to pay for staff overtime and buy a new ambulance exclusively for immigration-related calls, Mello said. According to him, the state government “has done a lot to solve the immigration problem”.

Aranda is more skeptical.

“As a former elected official, I see too much money being spent on what I would call politically motivated actions that are taking place in our community,” he said.

Abbott has also spent rounding up asylum seekers on buses and sending them to New York and Washington DC without any liaison with authorities in those Democratic-run cities.

With the midterm elections just days away, Aranda can’t help but see political machinations at play.

“This is probably the most expensive campaign that Texas taxpayers have [ever] had for the governorship,” he said.

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