Rational Border Talk from Rio Grande Valley Leaders

In her Stories From a Texas Border Ranch series, Melissa Guerra looked at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with her Mexican neighbors, the narrative journey of her homeland veered away from politics to paint a powerful picture of daily life in the Rio Grande Valley. Guerra returned with another border series, Conversations with Migrants, which looked at life from the other side. A timely perspective that begged consideration, that series covered the stories of the migrants. Since, she’s written pieces for New Worlder in direct response to the crisis at the border and the continued media spotlight that has been cast on the Valley in the wake of Trump’s visit. This is her latest installment.

Thumbing through my home library, I came across the May 2007 edition of National Geographic. An article, written by Charles Bowden, examines the state of the border wall as it existed 12 years ago. Photos of vast, dusty desert spaces, empty border towns, and shabby partial walls cobbled together out of scraps of iron, discarded tires and corrugated aluminum illustrate the status of our border security at the time. But on rereading the article, I was struck by a quote buried on the last page:

“There is an iron law on this border: The closer one gets to the line, the more rational the talk becomes, because everyone has personal ties to people on the other side.”

Reminding myself of the status of our border 12 years ago casts an interesting light on the declared state of emergency in order to obtain border wall funding. I realized that our border has never been a state of emergency but has existed as a circumstance of evolution.

As a lifelong border resident, our evolution intrigues me. And the irrational rhetoric that is quoted and misquoted regarding the border by people who don’t live here drives me wild. Bowden’s observation that our local border talk is more rational than that of our nation struck a chord with me. Will decisions be made on my community based on posturing politicians, sensational op-eds, and fake news bylines that sell ad space? This is my greatest fear.

As a food writer, I do not qualify as a border expert. However, I’m a local. So, I don’t have to look far in my community for others that can tell me what is really happening on our border. When I go to church, drop by a neighbor’s barbecue or spend a few minutes inspecting tomatoes at the super market, I reliably run into my friends who are among the civic leaders and elected officials whose careers are devoted to keeping my bi-national border community safe.

I call the sheriff occasionally – a distant relative – for explanation of the finer details of what our media sources get wrong. Having built his career in the Rio Grande Valley, Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra is an expert on border issues. He’s in charge of the largest county along the U.S./Mexican border, which includes 53 miles of frontage along the Rio Grande. He is actively involved in the daily management of both citizens and migrants moving through his jurisdiction. His family has ranched the Rio Grande Valley since the 1700’s and he’s inherited vast generational knowledge of our bi-national culture. He knows our area well.

So, when our president visited the Rio Grande Valley in January, I was surprised that Sheriff Guerra was not invited to speak at the roundtable presentation. In fact, only one local opinion was publicly shared with the president, a land owner, who is not a member of law enforcement. Elected officials like Guerra, who manage the Rio Grande Valley border situation were seated quietly behind the round table participants. Shockingly, they were not given an opportunity to speak.

National politicians and other outsiders can speak theoretically as to how to resolve the border debate as they stump towards their next election, but our local border community officials have real, practical field experience. They have boots on the ground, and skin in the game.

Had our locally elected officials had been given two minutes to talk to the president, what would they have said to him?

Sheriff Guerra agrees with the President that there is a problem on the southern border but was disappointed that not one of the 31 members of the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition­—which includes the border counties from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas — could participate in the roundtable. These sheriffs have firsthand experience with smugglers and traffickers who exploit the gray areas between the local, state and federal authorities. For Guerra, the wall is a “tool in a tool box” that could help control the border but thinks a 2,000-mile wall is not practical. He remarked that the river is a more daunting barrier than a wall, but migrants continue to cross the Rio Grande every day.

I decided to call a few more local civic leaders, to ask them to respond to the recent border visit by our president.

Victor Rodriguez, the police chief of McAllen, would have told Trump that crime in McAllen is down 40% in 2018. That’s the lowest crime rate in 34 years, while Hidalgo County crime was down 50% over the last 10 years. Local law enforcement assets have reached their saturation point, spending police officer time and department budgets on a federal problem. His concern is that if the city of McAllen crows too loud about low crime rates, the money and support for the real needs created by the influx of migrants will dry up.

Judge Richard Cortez, a former McAllen mayor, would have pointed out that a wall could not stop the newest methods of current drug smuggling. These days kites and drones drop caches of narcotics over the border. Maintaining a 2,000-mile wall in perpetuity would be expensive, paralyzing budgets when new problems arise in an ever-evolving political environment.

These officials agreed that comprehensive immigration reform is the best and cheapest resolution, given the cruel disappointment migrants experience when they arrive at the border. Rodriguez said, “People march thousands of miles, they are raped, or killed along the way, all the while believing that they are reaching a pot of gold in the US.” Clearing up our existing “gray, grainy” US immigration policy is the humane solution that no politician is willing to tackle.

The undisguised paternalism from national news media, Beltway pundits, and Washington politicians is disheartening to all who live in the Rio Grande Valley. This is our bi-national community, and we live here by choice. Instead of being included in the conversation, we are isolated, and silenced.

Our local community leaders exemplify the rational talk that Bowden speaks of in his 2007 article. The collective knowledge of the elected officials in the Rio Grande Valley is priceless when considering the unnecessary but imminent state of emergency declaration that is brewing in Washington. Our border is at a historical moment in its evolution, with peaceful, rational answers only a conversation away.