On Both Sides Of The Mexican Border, Fear Grows For U.S.-Bound Migrants

Mar 12, 2017
Originally published on March 12, 2017 2:53 pm

Along a barren dirt road, Border Patrol agents spot a mother and son, carrying nothing as they walk along the river's edge. The sun beats down on them as the patrol car pulls up.

"Where are you from?" Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Marlene Castro asks the mother. "How much did you pay to get here?"

Recent statistics from the Department of Homeland Security show "an unprecedented decline" in the numbers of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. It announced a 40 percent drop from January to February, and credited the Trump administration's tough actions on immigration as the cause.

But in this corner of south Texas, every day still sees migrants trying to make it to the United States.

Celia, the mother, says she's from El Salvador. (We are not using her last name, at her request, because she fears for her safety.) On this part of the border, the majority of those trying to cross illegally are from Central America. Celia says she fled her country to protect her 17-year-old son from one of the most feared gangs in the country, the Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13.

"They wanted to take him. I had to hide him at a friend's house while we fled the country. They wanted him to join them. And they threatened that, if he didn't, they would kill both of us," she recounts, crying.

"The situation is terrible because you can't trust the police. The police are linked to the gangs," Celia says. "I was going to file a complaint for the threats against us, but the gangs would have known about it immediately. That would have made it worse."

It's an irony that she's fleeing a gang that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s. MS-13 was initially set up by Salvadoran immigrants who had relocated to the U.S. to get away from their country's brutal civil war, in which the U.S. was heavily involved. The FBI calls the group highly dangerous and violent. The chaos and insecurity they've brought to the region is one of the main causes of much of the migration from Central America.

"I've got a Christmas present for you," agent Castro speaks into her radio as she spots two more migrants down the road. It's a boy and a girl, both 17, who come from Guatemala and Honduras, respectively.

Castro then points to the other side of the Rio Grande toward Mexico, as other people pull a raft up from the water.

"Those are the smugglers," Castro says.

The river is narrow here and it's easy to spot them. She says she's seen cases of women and girls who have been sexually abused by the traffickers; men and boys who have been beaten.

"They prey on their desperation, on their ignorance, because they're not familiar with the laws, processes, anything."

Castro says U.S. Border Patrol has a good working relationship with the Mexican police. Still, she acknowledges the smugglers use the same safe houses over and over again, with little interference from Mexican authorities.

Under former President Obama, families likes these who were caught at the border would be processed and then set free until an immigration hearing could be scheduled, possibly years into the future, due to overburdened courts.

But that's changing under the Trump administration.

Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Daniel Hughbanks was called to the scene of the apprehensions. It's been frustrating to spend time capturing people, he says, only to see them let go.

"As a Border Patrol agent, it ties people up here doing this. If we're going to let people come in and just release them, why don't they just let them come to the port of entry and do it? It seems like we should be discouraging people from making illegal entries," Hughbanks says.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has announced officials are now considering separating children from parents who entered the country illegally. The adults would be kept in detention and the children would be placed into protective custody until they can be handed over to a relative or put into foster care.

And it's not just new arrivals being threatened with separation from their children.

New threats call for new precautionary measures

Just north of the border, in the poor neighborhood of Las Milpas in Pharr, Texas, a community center holds a meeting packed full of mothers and children. The organization, ARISE, is helping the families prepare for possible deportation.

The organizers hand out "preparation kits." Most of the people in attendance are not authorized to be in the country.

While the Obama administration deported criminals who were in the country illegally, it generally left law-abiding families without documentation alone. Since the Trump administration has encouraged a more aggressive deportation strategy, many in this community say they're very afraid.

The kits have information on what the would-be immigrants' legal rights are if they're stopped by Border Patrol or even regular police. The kits also include draft custody forms; the organizers explain that it's vital for the parents to designate a legal guardian because their children could be put into foster care if they don't have one and the parents are deported. The mothers' faces look grave as they listen.

Eva is among them. (At her request, we're using only Eva's first name because she's in the U.S. illegally.) She has six children, but it's her 9-year-old boy who has become terrified that she'll be taken away.

"He comes home from school and the first thing he does is look for me," Eva says as she begins to cry. "He tells me, 'When I don't see you mommy, I think that you've been sent away to Mexico.' He can't concentrate at school because he is always so worried about his mom and dad."

She says she's planning to fill out the custody document but she's torn over whom to appoint. It's such a terrifying decision, she says, "I just don't trust that many people."

Eva knows how difficult a burden this will be on whoever may have to take her kids — she's already looking after the son of one of her friends who was deported. He has special needs and it's been very hard.

She says she tells her little ones to be brave.

"We don't want so many deportations, so many families being separated. That's not what we want," Eva says.

Debbie Nathan, who's with the American Civil Liberties Union, was also at the community meeting. She runs a hotline to report abuses by the Border Patrol or police and says she's hearing about an uptick in aggressive policing of neighborhoods where unauthorized immigrants live.

"It's terrorizing," she says. "People are telling me they don't go out of their houses. They used to take walks at night. They would walk the dog, they would go to the grocery store. I've heard stories about people not taking their children to child doctor visits — trying to figure out whether the child is sick or well enough that they can skip the visit."

Nathan says people feel intimidated. And while this has been going on for a while, it's gotten more pronounced under Trump.

"I've been on the border on and off for many years, and I've never seen anything like this," she adds.

A treacherous waiting ground

Across the border in Mexico, things are also difficult. NPR's John Burnett went to Reynosa, where the industrial city of 650,000 is feeling the burden of Trump's aggressive immigration enforcement policies.

The U.S. is deporting busloads of Mexicans and Central Americans who were in the country without permission and dropping them off in Reynosa and other Mexican border cities, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Reynosa is no place for immigrants, says Sister Maria Nidelvia-Avila, the director of the city's migrant shelter, Casa de Migrante.

"They're looking for a place to live," she says. "They're looking for work. They need food. They're insecure and poor. What are they to do?"

Reynosa is dealing with the dual influx of deportees from the north and migrants from the south — with little infrastructure to deal with the overflow.

This city has traditionally been a popular staging ground for people coming from elsewhere in Mexico and Central America to jump the border into Texas.

Migrants who made the long, dangerous trek to Reynosa are now finding themselves in limbo.

Antonio Herrera came all the way from La Ceiba, Honduras, with the intention of crossing illegally and finding work in the U.S. Now he's having second thoughts, as he kills time — day after day — in an immigrant shelter on the south side of the Rio Grande.

"Truthfully, we hope that God touches Mr. Trump's heart," Herrera says, adjusting his fedora, "and he gives us opportunity to come to the United States to work."

Coping from south of the border

But some in Mexico feel Trump's tough immigration is the harsh medicine that Mexico needs.

Inside the downtown Zaragoza Market, president of the local merchants' association, Patricio Hernandez, congratulates Trump for forcing Mexico to face reality.

"I don't like Trump's politics, but there's a good side to everything," he says. "Trump is taking care of Americans. We have to take care of our house. The Mexican government should be concerned about the illegals who went to the U.S., and the lack of work here in Mexico. Trump is forcing us to be responsible for our own house."

Hernandez recently did his part by hiring an unemployed man from southern Mexico to work in his jewelry store, making keys.

Horacio Gutierrez is a husky 30-year-old who traveled here, like many others, with the intention of using Reynosa as his departure point.

"My plan was to go to the United States," he says, "but then this president came and it's gotten tough for us. We're seeing he's deporting lots of people."

So Gutierrez makes keys in the marketplace, unable to send any money home to his family in Chiapas. "But," he says with a wan smile, "it's better to make less money here in Mexico, and not live in fear of the immigration police."

Back across the border in the U.S., we find the migrants we met being detained by Border Patrol. Celia and her son are at a migrant shelter, preparing for their journey to Los Angeles, where her brother lives. She says she's happy she's been let go from detention, but she has a court date in a few weeks where her fate will be decided.

"I feel some hope," she says. "I don't want to go back. I dream of my son studying in safety, that he will be fine. I hope I can find a job to support him."

I ask her if her long journey has been worth it.

The answer is one word.


NPR's Samantha Balaban and Ravenna Koenig contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Building a wall has been a central promise of President Donald Trump since his candidacy. And last month in his address before Congress, Mr. Trump promised to deliver.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Department of Homeland Security is now considering bids from companies eager to build that wall. But are the people who live along the border eager to have it? I traveled to southeastern Texas earlier this month to find out. The border, people here tell me, has a unique culture. And one way you can tell is the different ways people pronounce the name of the place they live.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In the Rio Grand (ph) Valley.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Or the Rio Gran-day (ph) Valley...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Rio Gran-day Valley sector.

JOEL VILLARREAL: Now, if you pronounce it in Spanish, it's Rio Gran-day City. But of course, the English version is Rio Grandie (ph) City.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right there at the end, we heard Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal explaining how this is a place where two cultures meet. We'll hear more from him later. But for now, we begin on a bridge.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a celebration in the Rio Grande Valley that's been going on for more than 40 years. It's called BorderFest, and there's a long-standing tradition where the mayors of Hidalgo, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico, two cities separated only by the Rio Grande, meet in the middle of a bridge and hug each other in solidarity.


MARTIN CEPEDA: Muy buenos dias. Como estas todos ustedes?


GARCIA-NAVARRO: The hug is symbolic, but it speaks to a fundamental truth on the border. The people gathered are not just neighbors. In many cases, they're family, friends and business partners. The relationships here are intimate. And this year, mayor of Hidalgo, Martin Cepeda, had a pointed message to share.

CEPEDA: (Through interpreter) This hug is for friendship, for being good neighbors, for communication. That's what we need from both countries. We don't need divisions. We need bridges. We don't need walls.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are a few border walls in the Rio Grande Valley. You can stand on the banks of most of the river and see across to Mexico. We came to this part of Texas because it sees the largest number of people trying to cross illegally. And it's where the most apprehensions take place on the southwestern border.

O. D. EMERY: Look at this beaten path coming up from the river. You think the border's secure?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: O.D. Emery is showing me the trails on his land left by people crossing illegally from Mexico.

You can see - looks almost like little handholds have been...

EMERY: See that burnt trunk down there?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Carved into the side of the banks.

EMERY: See where the trees are burnt down there?


EMERY: That's where they burned the side of the river off so they probably have an easier way to get up with their stuff.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Emery owns a 500-acre farm just outside of Progreso, Texas. On one side is the Rio Grande River, and on the other is one of the few border walls in this area.

EMERY: There's probably 20 or a little over 20 feet total.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This stretch was built in 2007 under George W. Bush. There were grand plans back then for a border wall, but only a small portion was ever constructed because of lawsuits, environmental concerns and a lack of money. Emory was one of the few people we spoke to who supports the wall as Trump has described it.

EMERY: Who wouldn't want the wall, you know? Crooks, you know, illegals - they're the only ones that don't want the wall. Why - and we're not building a wall - or I don't think we're going to build a wall - across the bridges. You can still enter legally and go see your family or go shopping or whatever you want to do. You know, I think that we're just trying to stop the illegal activity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you support it. You think it's a good idea.

EMERY: Oh, yeah. I think we have to support our borders. If we don't, the bad guys will come, eventually take it away from us. You know? They're not going to care about us. They just want our, you know, the richness of America.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Emery says, before the wall, there was a lot of vandalism and theft on his property, less so now. He says maybe the people up north don't see a problem.

EMERY: I totally understand that, you know, everybody sitting in their big easy chair at home and the TV saying there might be a problem. And they're looking around saying - well, I don't see any problem. Looks like it's all right to me.


EMERY: You know? And they just don't know because they haven't experienced it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you feel like you're on the front line in a way, to that, securing the country? Is that what it feels like?

EMERY: Pretty close, pretty close.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a man whose actual job it is to hold that front line, facing off against violent Mexican cartels and human smuggling gangs who wield enormous power.

MANUEL PADILLA JR.: My name is Manuel Padilla Jr. I'm the chief patrol agent of the Rio Grande Valley sector here in south Texas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Padilla grew up in Nogales, Ariz. He's been with Border Patrol for 30 years, and he's credited with driving down cartel activity and illegal crossings in Arizona. He's now been tasked with doing the same for this stretch of the border. Now, when President Trump describes the border, he paints a picture of a place overrun by illegal activity.


TRUMP: We've defended the borders of other nations while leaving our own borders wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Padilla says it's more complicated than that.

PADILLA: People will say the border is very dangerous or the border is very safe. And it's not a blanket statement that fits, you know, on either side. I can show you a border area where you actually have retired people from all over America that live right on the river banks. That area - those people are not terrified of a border being out of control. I can show you areas that I wouldn't take you at night because you are likely going to be robbed or get shot at. That's a very dangerous border area. So it's not a one-size-fits-all. You have different areas. And primarily, our most volatile areas are the ones where we do not have the right mix of personnel, technology, infrastructure - that, I can tell you all day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A physical barrier, he says, is helpful in populated areas. But other parts of the border need other solutions, like cameras and access roads.

Can you secure the border a hundred percent. I mean, I've never been to a border anywhere in the world that I've seen security a hundred percent. Is that possible here in the United States?

PADILLA: I do not feel that it is impossible. I don't know if it's practical to seal the border completely. If you look at, you know, the Berlin Wall, I think that that was not a hundred percent sealed. So I don't think it's practical.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The border has changed a lot over the years. And there's one place where you can get a sense of what it used to be like. At Los Ebanos, there's a hand-cranked river ferry, the last one left on the border. It takes cars and people across from the United States to Mexico for a buck-twenty-five a trip. But even though it may look like a throwback in time, there is a lot of security here. I met with NPR reporter John Burnett who's been covering this area for decades. The last time the federal government tried to build a wall around here, it convulsed the area.

How have you seen the border change over the years? How many agencies are there here working right now? President Trump says this border is wide open.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: That's right. He says you can just walk right across. Well, good luck with that. I counted seven uniformed agencies here. It goes all the way from local police, local sheriff, two kinds of Customs and Border Protection - you've got ICE; you've got state troopers. You've got the National Guard. It's cop land down here. And more are on the way with 5,000 new border agents that will be hired in the coming years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And right here - so people can understand, there is no physical barrier between Mexico, only the river.

BURNETT: Right. We're actually in a place - this is called the Upper Valley. This is Los Ebanos. It's near Starr County, which is where Rio Grande City and Roma are. They didn't build the fence here, but it's coming. They've already been acquiring land in Starr County, just west of us. And so it's going to start all over again - the land condemnation, the lawsuits, all the equipment coming in to build the fence. So it's going to start this whole process. This is very unpopular.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Unpopular, especially among many of the local politicians.

VILLARREAL: We do want a secure border. But the wall is not going to be effective. It's not going to produce any better results than what we already have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joel Villarreal is the mayor of Rio Grande City. And the opinion he just gave was one we heard over and over.

VILLARREAL: Illegal immigration - close to half of all illegal immigrants come here legally through visas. They overstay their visas, then they become really. What percentage of actual barrier is it going to be statistically significant of producing any more results than what we were doing?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Villarreal says he's resigned to the wall coming, though.

VILLARREAL: I met with our patrol chief here with Border Patrol. And the idea was - OK, the wall is coming. It appears that it's going to happen. So what do we do to try to make the best of this situation because we have some concerns regarding this wall? One - a lot of individuals are actually private landowners. Make sure that they get their fair market value for that property. Two - local input, to make sure that they have access to the river. Why? They're going to need access to the river. Many of them have water rights. So they're going to have - pumping water straight out of the river and making sure they have access to it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ultimately though, he says, people in Washington are making decisions about something he feels they don't fully understand. And the rhetoric from President Trump has been especially damaging.

VILLARREAL: When there's an attack, absolutely it feels personal because it's actually attacking the integrity of the way of life here. And way of life in the sense that we have co-existed - we've been able to manage and have these partnerships that had been working for this area. So when you have somebody coming from the outside and saying to us here that there's a different way how they view our own relationships and interactions here, then they have no idea what they're talking about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We'll be hearing more voices from the border later in the show, talking about trade with Mexico and about what it's like right now for people in this country illegally.

DEBBIE NATHAN: It's terrorizing. It's literally terrorizing. I mean, people are telling me they don't go out of their houses. They used to take walks at night. They would walk the dog. They would go to the grocery store. I've heard stories about people not taking their children to well child doctor visits, trying to figure out whether the child is sick or well enough that they can skip the visit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That, next hour.

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