Immigration & Labor

The Occupation

In South Texas, border residents struggle to cope with the latest military surge.
Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images
U.S. Army troops deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border line up to receive a Thanksgiving meal at a base near the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge on November 22, 2018 in Donna, Texas.

The blue and white chopper dipped low over the old white farmhouse and the muddy green river. Seventy-three-year-old Reynaldo Anzaldua, sporting a tan Vietnam vet baseball cap, squinted up at the chopper blotting out the blue sky. “Border Patrol, ver…” he said, the whir of the rotor blades drowning out his words. Anzaldua waited a bit, watching the chopper move upriver. “Verdad?” he said finally to his cousin, Fred Cavazos, who had rolled his wheelchair over to the edge of the cattle pen so he could feed his Longhorns. Cavazos nodded. “They’ve got three kinds of helicopters down here,” he said, knowingly. “That one’s Border Patrol, then you’ve got the National Guard, and the state police got their own.”

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“But now, we also got the military,” Anzaldua added. “I heard they’re down at the port of entries jumping out of black helicopters with submachine guns. I haven’t seen it yet myself, but that’s what I’ve heard.” Both of them had lived along the Rio Grande their entire lives and the recent deployment of more than 5,800 active duty soldiers near their homes and along the southern border still felt surreal, even in border communities that had grown accustomed to more policing and surveillance than anywhere else in America. Photos, snapped by locals, circulated on Facebook of Customs and Border Protection agents clad in black riot gear shutting down lanes at the ports of entry with Mexico, of soldiers in Mission, Texas, not far from Cavazos’s farm, lining the Rio Grande with razor wire. A feeling of foreboding had settled in along the border.

It was November 6 — Election Day. We stood in the sun watching Cavazos push a bale of hay into the cattle pen. The Pentagon had announced the deployment, dubbed Operation Faithful Patriot, one week earlier. In a string of increasingly hysterical tweets leading up to the deployment, President Donald Trump had warned of an “invasion” by Central American families traveling north to seek asylum in caravans — or “scare-a-vans,” as CNN had dubbed them. Mexico, Trump tweeted, should stop “this large flow of people, INCLUDING MANY CRIMINALS, from entering Mexico to the US. …If unable to do so I will call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!”

Cranking up the rhetoric on October 31, Trump had told reporters he’d send as many as 10,000 to 15,000 troops. Never mind that the 5,800 soldiers and 2,100 National Guardsman already deployed meant that more troops were amassed there than in Iraq and Syria combined. The next day, in televised remarks from the White House, Trump said he’d authorize lethal force against migrants traveling in the caravans. “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back,” Trump said. “We’ll consider — and I told them — consider it a rifle.”

John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. Army vehicles sit parked at a new military camp under construction at the U.S.-Mexico border on Nov. 2018 in Donna, Texas.

The president’s words sent a chill through border communities, where many still remember when a U.S. Marine assigned to a drug interdiction task force mistakenly shot and killed an 18-year-old boy, Esequiel Hernández, in 1997 as he was herding goats in the small Texas border town of Redford. Fatal shootings of unarmed residents by the Border Patrol is an ever-present danger. In less than a decade, agents have fatally shot at least 25 unarmed people — some of them standing across the border in Mexico. The Border Patrol often claimed the shootings were in self-defense because the victims had thrown rocks in the direction of agents.

So it wasn’t much consolation when Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, chief of U.S. Northern Command and in charge of the deployment, told reporters that the troops would be extensively briefed on the rules of engagement but would follow the lead of CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency. CBP will be “the primary and principle members that will be handling specifically the migrants,” O’Shaughnessy said. “There could be incidental interaction between our military members and migrants or other personnel. … And so we are making [sure] that our soldiers, our Marines are going to be fully trained in how to do that interaction. They’re going to understand the rules for that interaction and they’ll be consistent with CBP.”

“Having the military here is a disaster,” Anzaldua said. “Or more likely a tragedy. They are trained for war. They shouldn’t be here. But it’s not their fault.” Anzaldua, himself a former Air Force sergeant, shook his head, frowning. “They’re just doing what they’re told. In my opinion, some of those politicians who sent them down here should be held accountable if they shoot someone. They should be tried for murder.”

They didn’t feel safer, only under occupation, he said, and people were suffering on the other side of the river, too. “They’re supposed to take in asylum-seekers and vet them to see whether they’re eligible to stay or not,” Anzaldua said. “A lot of those folks are families with children, and they’re suffering from the elements, and there’s no telling whether they’re getting food or water. It’s inhumane what they are doing.”

During the Pentagon press conference on October 29 announcing Operation Faithful Patriot, O’Shaughnessy said the deployment would consist largely of Army engineering, aviation, and medical personnel who would “harden the southern border” in advance of the migrant caravan arrivals. It would also include armed divisions of military police, he said. But the general emphasized that the military police were not authorized to engage in law enforcement at the border, which would violate the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act that bans the use of military for civilian law enforcement. “Everything we are doing is in line with and in adherence to Posse Comitatus,” O’Shaughnessy said.

I asked Mark Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, and now senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whether migrant caravans filled with asylum-seekers should be considered a national threat. He chuckled. “It’s in the eye of beholder. The president says it is, others say it isn’t. The notion that we should defend our borders — that’s why we have a military, to safeguard the borders. On the other hand, this is mostly a law enforcement problem. The military is terrible with civilians. When they see threatening people, their inclination is to eliminate the threat.”

  • “I was a U.S. Customs agent for 30 years. So I know how smuggling works. And a wall won’t stop it.”

“Is the deployment political?” Anzaldua asked rhetorically, as he leaned against his cousin’s white van. “Sure it is. It’s all a big show.” Cavazos nodded in agreement. Up on the earthen levee, a Border Patrol agent whizzed by on an ATV, trailing a plume of dust. Then a constable in a black SUV parked on the levee, at the base of Cavazos’s driveway. Anzaldua glanced over at the officer in dark sunglasses who had gotten out of her vehicle and was now rifling through a case of water bottles in the back. “Last week I was here at the farm and in less than one hour, I counted over 20 Border Patrol units, four [Texas] Department of Public Safety units, a game warden, and four city police units,” he said. “We feel like we’re always being watched.”

Anzaldua had brought me to his cousin’s farm, he said, because he wanted to get the word out about Trump’s border wall, which will run along the levee next to their land. The farmstead sprawled more than half a mile from the levee south down to the Rio Grande, Cavazos explained. At least 30 people rented modest riverside cabins and homes from him, and their access would be cut off by the wall. A construction firm in Galveston had already signed a $145 million contract to build the new wall, and work was slated to begin as early as February. The earthen levee will be replaced with concrete and an 18-foot steel bollard fence on top.  The farm and his riverside property will be cut off from the United States. Anzaldua and Cavazos were contemplating a lawsuit against CBP. It might win them some time, Anzaldua said, but ultimately it would be tough to beat the Trump administration and eminent domain.

Anzaldua has lost this battle before. More than a decade ago, I interviewed him when he was trying to stop the construction of a similar border wall — under the George W. Bush administration — that went through his backyard in the neighboring town of Granjeno, three miles east of his cousin’s farm. But Anzaldua said he’d take up the fight again to help his cousin. “I was a U.S. Customs agent for 30 years,” said Anzaldua. “So I know how smuggling works. And a wall won’t stop it. People in America don’t understand that the problem is here — the demand for drugs, the demand for cheap labor. Until you do away with those, it’s never going to stop.”

After the wall was built in Granjeno, his relatives who lived south of it had to abandon their farms, and now it had become a haven for smugglers. “What most people don’t understand is that it’s about a mile between the border wall in Granjeno and the river,” Anzaldua explained. “Everything south of the wall we call no man’s land now because no one goes there, not even Border Patrol. They stick to patrolling the wall.”

“The same will probably happen here,” Cavazos said, surveying the small farm from his wheelchair. “No man’s land.”

But the land was still of some value to the government. As the wall went up in Granjeno, a new port of entry and bridge was built to accommodate the international factories in Mexico shipping car parts, flat-screen TVs, and other consumer items for the global market. The new port of entry was named Anzalduas International Bridge.

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Project Manager James O'Loughlin explaining Border Wall prototypes to President Donald Trump, with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, and San Diego Sector Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott, San Diego, March 2018.

After I left Cavazos’s farm, I learned that soldiers had lined the Anzalduas bridge with razor wire and unspooled coils of it along the perimeter of the river underneath. Since the first influx of unaccompanied Central American children and families had started arriving at this stretch of the border in 2014, the field below Anzalduas bridge, dotted with yellow wildflowers and delicate fronded huisache trees, had become a popular point of arrival for asylum-seekers — their first acquaintance with the United States, after crossing the Rio Grande on inner tubes and small inflatable rafts. When I arrived one autumn afternoon in 2016, the scene was almost bucolic from a distance, with women and children splayed in the tall grass under the shade of the bridge. But as I drew closer, their faces told another story. As they waited for Border Patrol to arrive so they could request asylum, their faces were marked by exhaustion mixed with fear and guarded hope. Now the field was blocked off from the river with rolls of barbed concertina wire.

A Political Stunt

I drove to the city of Donna, 20 miles east of Cavazos’s farm, where a sprawling military encampment, Base Camp Donna, had started to take shape. A large field near the port of entry had been cordoned off with concertina wire strung along metal posts. News teams from the major networks had set up cameras outside the perimeter to capture images of the troops setting up their base camp. Further blurring the line between law enforcement and the military, two bemused soldiers on gate duty sat in a blue and white Customs and Border Protection SUV watching the camera operators set up their shots. Inside the compound, soldiers were readying the olive drab tents where they would sleep until December 15, when the deployment was supposed to end. Other soldiers unloaded concrete barriers from military trucks, which would be used to block off bridges to Mexico if and when the migrant caravans arrived.

At a Pentagon press conference on October 31, Defense Secretary James Mattis had defended the large number of active duty soldiers being sent to the border, comparing it to what the Defense Department might do after a natural disaster. A reporter asked Mattis whether the whole thing wasn’t just a political stunt, as many Democratic legislators had alleged, since the deployment had been announced a week before the midterms.

“The support that we provide to the Secretary for Homeland Security is practical support based on the request from the commissioner of Customs and Border Police (sic),” said Mattis. “We don’t do stunts in this department.”

Two weeks later, as Mattis toured Base Camp Donna, he was more philosophical. Trump had only issued one lackluster tweet about the caravan since Election Day. The DOD had also dropped the Operation Faithful Patriot moniker, reportedly at Mattis’s request, and was now simply calling it “border support.”

He advised the soldiers to focus on their mission to assist CBP and avoid the chaotic roil of news. Just that day, news reports had indicated that his job and that of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was touring the camp alongside him, were in jeopardy. “Now, there’s all sorts of stuff in the news,” he told the assembled soldiers, according to CNN. “You just concentrate on what your company commander, your battalion commander tells you. Because if you read all that stuff, you know, you’ll go nuts.”

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Dozens of women, men and their children, many fleeing poverty and violence in Honduras, Guatamala and El Salvador, arrive at a bus station following release from Customs and Border Protection on June 23, 2018 in McAllen, Texas.

En route to Texas, Mattis had tried to frame the deployment to reporters as commonplace. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” he told them, citing a history of military deployments leading back a century, when the U.S. Army had been sent to the border after a raid on Columbus, New Mexico, by Gen. Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his revolutionary troops in 1916. The comparison fell flat. There was no Division del Norte setting fire to American cities, just caravans of exhausted asylum-seekers, who were still hundreds of miles away.

But Mattis wasn’t wrong when he noted that the border was already militarized. The Rio Grande Valley, which stretches along 130 miles of Texas-Mexico border and includes the cities of Donna and Mission, is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in Texas, with a population of more than 1.3 million. The stretch of border at the southern tip of Texas is also the shortest distance from Central America, which is why many migrants favor the crossing. In little more than a decade, the Rio Grande Valley has seen 11 deployments of National Guard and Texas State Police.

The deployments have often come during election season. For many years, sending police and National Guard to the region, which is largely Latino and Democratic, has been a reliable Republican campaign strategy. In 2014, when the first major influx of Central American asylum-seekers began arriving at the Texas border, then-Gov. Rick Perry called a press conference to announce that he would not “stand idly by while our citizens are under assault” and deployed 1,000 National Guard soldiers and hundreds of state police to the Rio Grande Valley, calling it Operation Strong Safety. Residents complained of being arbitrarily stopped and harassed by state troopers with nothing to do. The warning of an “invasion” of Central Americans coming from Perry, Fox News, and others also attracted civilian militia members to the area, pledging to guard the homeland from “illegal alien invaders.” With so many armed individuals in the brush along the Rio Grande, things grew chaotic. In the summer of 2014, a Border Patrol agent shot at an armed man near the river in Brownsville. The man, a militia member, narrowly missed being hit. In another incident, a state police officer mistakenly shot at a Border Patrol agent during a nighttime patrol.

Not long after the deployment, Perry announced his second presidential bid. He failed to garner enough votes in the Republican primary, but after being eliminated from the TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” he was appointed by Trump to run the Department of Energy.

In April, Trump sent thousands of National Guard troops to the border in reaction to another migrant caravan he’d seen reported on Fox News. The deployment, part of the president’s “zero tolerance” strategy, unfolded in tandem with a family separation policy that horrified the world with children being torn from their parents’ arms and thrown in detention. At least eight states, led by both Democratic and Republican governors, recalled their National Guard soldiers in protest, dealing a blow to Trump’s family separation policy, which he ended in June.

Four months later, the president bypassed the states, ordering the Department of Defense to send active duty troops. Mattis complied but has reportedly turned down a number of Trump’s other controversial requests, including that the soldiers build tent cities for asylum-seekers along the border and detain or use lethal force against migrants. (On November 20, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly signed a “cabinet order” authorizing lethal force to protect border agents if needed, but Mattis said it would ultimately be up to him to give the order.) Since many of those deployed are from engineering battalions, and Base Camp Donna appeared to have a lot of heavy, earth-moving machinery, I wondered whether the soldiers would be used to build the border wall through Fred Cavazos’s farm. But a Northcom spokesperson assured me that the soldiers were only building temporary barriers, not permanent ones.

Complete Disorder

Across the river at a crowded migrant shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, a Venezuelan man holding his infant, clad only in a diaper, approached me, his face a picture of anguish. “Can you help us? Can you tell us what is happening — what we should do?” he said, identifying me as someone from the United States. “My son is sick, now he’s getting a rash, and we’ve been here since last month.”

He told me his name was Jesus, and he was a 38-year-old former police officer who had fled a government-controlled death squad in Venezuela. Jesus said he’d been at the Mexican shelter, Casa del Migrante, with his two sons for more than three weeks. His wife had died in Venezuela during childbirth, he said. He had come to the border to ask the United States for asylum, but he’d been unable to speak with anyone from U.S. immigration.

John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. Army soldiers from Ft. Riley, Kansas string razor wire near the port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border on Nov. 2018 in Donna, Texas.

Jesus said that he and the others at the shelter had been given numbers at the bridge by Mexican immigration agents who told them that U.S. immigration was at capacity, and they would have to wait. “We are supposed to be on a list and wait for our number to be called,” he said. “But we have never seen this list, and Mexican immigration tells us to wait, and wait, and wait.”

The other day, Jesus went back to the Mexican immigration office at the bridge to check on his family’s progress. An agent there told him they’d lost the list. “What I’ve seen so far is complete disorder,” Jesus said.

We sat down at a long white folding table in the tiled patio at the shelter, which had on one side, a crowded dormitory filled with women and children, many of them sleeping on the floor, and on the other side, a dormitory for the men. In the middle was a courtyard with patches of singed lawn. There, a group of children played with a soccer ball, while their parents worried.

Other men and women came and sat down at the table, curious about what I had to say. The director of the Catholic shelter, Juan Antonio Sierra, had told me that Casa del Migrante was designed to serve Mexicans deported from the U.S. and not asylum-seekers. Sierra said the shelter could comfortably house 84 people, but on many days, he now had more than 150, and he worried that the shelter would not be able house so many asylum-seekers if it continued.

I told Jesus and the others that I, too, was trying to find out what was happening at the bridges, which was why I wanted to speak with them. Jesus and the others looked disappointed. “It’s been so long now that our fear is the caravan will arrive,” a Colombian woman said.

“And the border closes,” said a woman from Honduras, in the shelter with two daughters, ages 5 and 7. She said it had taken them three months to arrive in Matamoros, and she had been waiting at the shelter for 16 days to speak with someone from U.S. immigration.

  • “You can’t press charges against the gangs because the next day they build your coffin.”

“Why did you leave Honduras?” I asked her.

“Too much crime,” she said. “Especially the gangs and the police. You can’t press charges against the gangs because the next day they build your coffin.”

I asked whether they’d heard about families being separated after they’d crossed into the United States. Most of them nodded yes.

“We face uncertainty,” the woman from Honduras conceded. “But we are in the hands of God.”

A Catch-22

The day before the midterms, the two bridges linking Brownsville with Matamoros appeared to be the last ports of entry in Texas still accepting asylum requests. The only other option was in El Paso, which had more than 400 people waiting to request asylum protection. The Honduran woman at Casa del Migrante told me that she was considering making the 800-mile trek with her two young daughters.

On November 9, Trump signed a presidential proclamation banning migrants from applying for asylum outside official ports of entry, contrary to the Immigration and Nationality Act. (A federal judge temporarily blocked the asylum ban little more than a week later.) It was a Catch-22. Since May, armed CBP agents had been stationed at the halfway point on international bridges preventing asylum-seekers from stepping foot on U.S. soil, said Jennifer Harbury, a longtime immigration attorney in the Rio Grande Valley, who had for the last few months walked asylum-seekers across herself to make sure they got through.

Harbury said she had to stop in October. Now it was impossible to cross on the bridge between the city of Hidalgo, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico, where she usually crossed with clients. Mexican immigration, she said, was forcing anyone with an asylum claim back into Reynosa, where cartel wars have raged for years and many migrants are kidnapped by organized crime.

  • “Trump doesn’t care. But I’m hoping the new president in Mexico doesn’t want this on his blotter sheet.”

Recently, Harbury and other attorneys and human rights advocates at the border filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which alleges that Mexican and U.S. immigration officials are working in tandem to make sure that few asylum-seekers reach U.S. soil to request protection. The petition, which took several months of investigation and signed witness affidavits, also describes Mexican immigration agents taking bribes to put asylum-seekers on “lists,” to insure their place in line with a U.S. asylum officer. The petition asks the commission to force both countries to respect federal and international asylum laws, but it could take several months for the commission’s court, based in San José, Costa Rica, to rule, and, even so, the United States has rejected the commission’s authority before. Harbury said she has greater hope for Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office on December 1 and has said he won’t do the U.S.’s dirty work on immigration.

“Trump doesn’t care,” Harbury said. “But I’m hoping the new president in Mexico doesn’t want this on his blotter sheet.”

A Sense of Fear

At the entrance of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, I met up with a group of volunteers who had been delivering food, medicine, and clothing to people camped out on the bridges on the Mexican side in Matamoros. One of the volunteers, Brendon Tucker, told me he’d recently witnessed a helicopter filled with soldiers swoop down over the Rio Grande, pointing their rifles at asylum-seekers on the Mexican side of the river. And that for the last few days, CBP and the military had been practicing riot drills and shutting down lanes on the U.S. side of the bridges, creating a sense of fear along the river.

Mike Benavides, another volunteer and a special education supervisor for the Brownsville school district, said that he and his partner Sergio Cordova had started delivering food in July after they heard that asylum-seekers were stuck on the bridges, waiting in the 100-plus degree heat. “We went to see for ourselves and we couldn’t believe it,” Benavides said. “There were children, pregnant women, and babies sitting there under the hot sun with nothing, no food or water. We went to Home Depot and bought some tarps, bought cases of water, and the first night we bought pizzas for everybody — basically we went all-out.” Benavides, who wore a gray guayabera, broke into a wide, easy smile. “But we were like, ‘Man, this is going to get expensive. We can’t do this alone.’”

GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images

Central American migrants — mostly from Honduras — moving towards the United States, line up for food outside a shelter near the US-Mexico border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 2018.

They were soon joined by others, including Andrea Morris Rudnik, a retired special education teacher, and Tucker, who described himself as a “redneck from the hill country” who had arrived in Brownsville in June to protest at the “tender age facility,” where babies and young children were held after being taken from their parents.

As time passed, and it became clear that the tender age facility wasn’t going to close, Benavides convinced Tucker, who is an experienced line cook, to start preparing meals for the asylum-seekers on the bridges.  Tonight, it was a delicious-looking creole chicken with rice and pans of baked brownies.

As the sun went down, we took off for Matamoros on foot, hauling wagons filled with supplies and enough creole chicken and brownies for 50 people. Another volunteer, Elias Cantu, had brought a brand-new pair of sneakers for a 9-year-old Nicaraguan boy who had arrived in Matamoros shoeless. I was struck by how open and generous border residents were to these strangers, while Trump, from hundreds of miles away, had portrayed them as a mortal threat to the United States.

On the Mexican side, a group of about 20 Cubans, Central Americans, and Africans sat waiting near the base of the bridge. They’d set up a white plastic folding table and some plastic chairs. Some families were sleeping on bits of cardboard and blankets in a parking lot next door. Several waved excitedly and called out greetings in Spanish as the volunteers arrived with the food and bottled water. Many of them, especially the babies and children, were in need of clean drinking water, one Cuban mother told me.

After delivering food there, the volunteers visited with another group of migrants who were camped under blue tarps near the middle of the bridge. Two U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents stood nearby, questioning anyone who passed and checking passports, to prevent any asylum-seeker from getting through. The migrants waiting on the bridge explained that as their number grew closer on the list, they advanced further on the bridge, waiting for a U.S. immigration officer to come out and escort them into an office on the U.S. side of the bridge for an asylum interview. “Some days, we don’t see anyone,” a Cuban woman waiting at the middle of the bridge told me. “Other days, they will take five or six people. There’s no explanation as to how the system works, so we just wait.” The woman told me that she and her teenage daughter had been sleeping on the bridge for nearly two weeks.

At the base of the bridge, I met Ngomeich, a 24-year-old from Cameroon, who said he’d waited for several weeks at Casa del Migrante and then decided to come to the bridge where he might have a better chance to make his case for asylum. He claims that Mexican immigration officials had told him, however, that the Americans said the shelter for Africans was full. In fact, there is no separate shelter for asylum-seekers from African nations. “I feel heartbroken,” Ngomeich said. He told me he had been studying biomedical engineering until a violent conflict broke out between French- and English-speaking factions in Cameroon. Some of his family members were killed. The university had closed, and rebel forces were trying to conscript him to fight. “I’ve never held a gun in my life,” he said. “So I fled.” It took him months to get to the Mexican border, he said, and he’d been robbed of everything he owned in Nicaragua. “At the worst times, I always kept this idea of the United States in my mind, that there I’d be safe,” Ngomeich said. “This was not what I expected.”

“No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum,” Carlos Diaz, a CBP spokesperson, wrote in an email in response to a request for comment. As we have done for several years, when our ports of entry reach capacity, we have to manage the queues and individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities.” Mexican immigration officials said they were not authorized to speak with reporters and referred me to Mexico’s department of the interior, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A Honduran child and her mother, fleeing poverty and violence in their home country, wait along the border bridge after being denied entry from Mexico into the U.S. on June 25, 2018 in Brownsville, Texas.

Speaking with Ngomeich and others, I learned that conflict was brewing between asylum-seekers waiting at the two bridges. U.S. immigration was now occasionally receiving asylum-seekers from the Brownsville and Matamoros International Bridge, known as the B&M, even though Mexican immigration officials told everyone at the shelter that the U.S. will only accept people on the Gateway Bridge — and the asylum-seekers there now felt that they were being skipped. And then there was a strange encounter with a local man at the B&M bridge, in a black and white Punisher skull T-shirt, who said he was volunteering to protect the asylum-seekers, because before he had arrived some had been kidnapped. He said he had a list with all their names but didn’t say whom he’s keeping the list for. He said he was not affiliated with Mexican immigration or bridge officials. Matamoros, like Reynosa, is under the control of the Gulf Cartel and the kidnapping of migrants for ransom is common.

Before I crossed back into Brownsville, I said goodbye to Ngomeich, who sat with two other young men from Cameroon, who said they have also been told by Mexican immigration that the United States is not accepting Africans. “If the United States will not offer protection to us, then who will?” Ngomeich asked. “Then we have nobody.”

Make Way for the Wall

On November 14, the first members of the migrant caravan began arriving in Tijuana at the California border, bypassing Texas altogether. Even so, Texas still has the highest number of soldiers from the deployment — 2,800 in total. The same day, the Border Patrol held an invite-only meeting in the Rio Grande Valley at its headquarters in McAllen for landowners who will be impacted by the border wall. Reynaldo Anzaldua attended the meeting with his cousin. “They had more law enforcement there than they had actual landowners at the meeting,” he told me. “And there were two soldiers there, too.” He and other landowners had to pass through four security checkpoints, he said, and were searched for firearms, cellphones, and recording devices before they could enter the meeting. And Border Patrol barred the executive director of a butterfly conservation center slated for the border wall, as well as attorneys representing Fred Cavazos and his family and other property owners, for demanding that the meeting be made public and that the media outside be allowed to enter. When the people barred from the meeting refused to leave, the local police were called to remove them.

In the end, Anzaldua said the Border Patrol didn’t tell them much anyway, only that construction for the wall would begin soon. Just the other day, he said, they’d received the “letter of taking” from the government for the family farm. “Now we’re seeing the Army helicopters flying over our property,” he said. “You can tell when they’re coming because they’ve got a more powerful engine. You can feel it.”

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, where Melissa del Bosque is a Lannan Reporting Fellow.

About the reporter

Melissa del Bosque

Melissa del Bosque

Melissa del Bosque is a Lannan reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

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