SAN ANTONIO — The way many Republicans describe it, President Biden has thrown open the border between Mexico and the United States so that anyone who wants to come into the country can do so, illegally or legally.
But many of those who live along the border in Texas say that while there has been a dramatic increase in the number of migrants caught crossing illegally, the border itself has been heavily restricted for nearly a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last March, the Trump administration closed the border to nonessential pedestrian and vehicular traffic from Mexico, halting not just asylum seekers but also Mexicans who regularly crossed international bridges to legally shop, dine and spend money in border communities. Border cities, many of which struggle with high rates of poverty, depend on the fees collected from bridge traffic and have seen their coffers empty with the closures.
In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley — home to 13 international bridges for pedestrians and vehicles — traffic at the crossings is down 50 to 60 percent, representing millions in losses, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and local officials. In Hidalgo County alone, leaders say cross-border commerce represents about a third of its revenue. The same is happening at the 15 other international bridges and border crossings in the state.
“There’s no open borders here,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said. “The border is shut down to most everyone.”
Adapting to policy shifts
Customs and Border Protection is on pace to make more than 130,000 arrests and detentions in March, up from 100,000 a month ago and 34,000 a year ago. There has been a marked increase in the number of migrant children and teenagers arriving without their parents, and the Biden administration has struggled to find space in shelters for them as they await placement with a vetted relative or sponsor.
But for border communities in Texas and beyond, this is the beginning of a third wave of increasingly routine migration upticks in recent years. Over that time, however, the federal government has taken steps to keep these influxes largely out of sight of local residents.
The vast majority of apprehended adults crossing illegally are expelled within a few hours. Unaccompanied minors and some families with young children who are being allowed to stay in the country are quickly transported to Border Patrol stations and processing centers that are usually hidden from view by fencing, and then to shelters and tent facilities on the edge of town or in desolate areas.
Asylum-seeking families are not overrunning the streets of border cities, officials said. The rare instances when a resident of McAllen, Brownsville, Laredo or other Texas border cities might encounter migrants are at airports, bus stations, shelters or passing through a river-adjacent community.
While the Biden administration has been accused of not planning ahead for the surge of migrants, leaders of communities in the area say they have been preparing for months for the policy changes that shift migration dynamics with each new administration. Local governments and their nongovernment partners work in tandem with federal law enforcement — and often without the guarantee of reimbursement — to temporarily house, clothe, feed and now test for the coronavirus asylum-seeking and migrating families.
This has been life on the border in the absence of significant congressional action on immigration. With each new administration, programs are reversed. Rules are rescinded. Criminal smuggling organizations get to work. And CBP agents — many of whom grew up along the southwestern border and are now raising their families here — respond.
Border Patrol union representatives in Texas did not respond to requests for comment, but their leaders have bent the ear of state and federal elected leaders, airing their frustration at the return of “catch and release,” which they say has overwhelmed agents.
The perennial parade of politicians — Republicans and Democrats — who use border communities as a backdrop to news conferences about crises rarely reflects the nuanced realities of what residents experience or understand about their beloved part of the country.
Last week, Abbott conducted an aerial tour of the border, then held a news conference in Mission, Tex., against the backdrop of law enforcement vehicles. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) toured a newly reopened youth detention facility in Carrizo Springs and spoke with border leaders for a roundtable in Laredo.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and a team of Republican lawmakers visited the border Monday to assess the situation and criticize Biden. Democratic lawmakers are planning to soon do their own trip to provide a counter message.
Residents and border city leaders say they often don’t feel heard about the practical steps needed to avert an actual crisis. Few want open borders here, but they say that’s not what is happening right now.
“Some people come with good intentions, and some come for a photo op,” said Cortez, the Hildalgo County judge.
“But for all the agendas, we still haven’t been able to solve this problem,” the Democrat said. “How can we tell the rest of America to wake up and tell your congressional people that what we want — no, need, is comprehensive immigration reform.”
'Little overall impact'
If there is a crisis, border leaders say, it is in Washington and Austin.
“Why can’t they fix this?” said Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen, one of the largest cities in the Rio Grande Valley, six miles from the river.
Congressional representatives of border districts say they consistently find themselves in the delicate position of trying to draw attention and push their colleagues to address migration issues without politicizing them. Federal law enforcement officers and their families, many of whom supported Trump’s immigration agenda, also compose a vocal and significant constituency for Democratic leaders in southern and western Texas.
While a majority along the border vote Democratic, a consistent and growing number of residents have shown a willingness to elect Republicans who speak to their particular concerns.
One thing is clear, however, attorney Ricardo de Anda said: “Support for comprehensive immigration reform has been very high along the border for a long, long time.”
Several border leaders said the political rhetoric about the migrant surges obscures the real problems facing their communities. In the Rio Grande Valley, the more pressing crises have been destructive hurricanes, a devastating winter freeze, the grave toll of the pandemic and the constraints that a closed border has on their region’s economic recovery.
Property owners are still waiting to hear whether Biden’s Justice Department will abort land condemnation cases initiated during border wall construction. People who live near the river want to know whether the federal government plans to restore flood levees damaged by unfinished border wall projects before hurricane season begins.
With covid-19 hospitalization rates falling and vaccination rates slowly increasing throughout the region, border leaders are devoting increasing attention to the economic toll the pandemic and closed border have wreaked.
Eagle Pass Mayor Luis Sifuentes complained at the bipartisan roundtable with congressional representatives last week that it is unfair for the United States to continue barring border residents’ friends, family and neighbors.
“They are feeling resentful,” said Cuellar, who added he plans to send a letter to Biden about adjusting the policy. “I am getting people asking me why we are letting undocumented people in but not legal visa-holders that can help the economy.”
Cuellar, a centrist Democrat in a district that includes counties that went for Trump in 2020, has been a critic of Biden on immigration, admonishing administration officials about paying too much heed to activists. Those same community organizers have long criticized the congressman for excluding or refusing to meet with them on these issues.
Cuellar has had Border Patrol officials embedded in his Washington office and at last week’s roundtable invited their union leaders and local elected officials, along with three advocates for immigrants.
Cuellar said that when his office analyzed CBP apprehension data, the difference in the average number of people agents encountered annually under the Obama and Trump administrations was small. The monthly numbers varied, but he said policies under both presidents failed to deter migration overall.
“Democrats look at the push factors, and Republicans focus on the pull factors,” Cuellar said. “But the policies have had little overall impact. They keep coming.”
There are real concerns about the spread of the coronavirus from migrants, but cities such as Brownsville and McAllen have tried to mitigate the risk through grants and relationships with organizations such as Catholic Charities to test most, if not all, families who are released by federal authorities. Border Patrol is not currently testing.
As the Biden administration ended the Migrant Protection Protocols that sequestered thousands of asylum seekers in Mexico for months, Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez has directed city workers to test families arriving at the downtown bus station. Those who test positive are instructed to isolate in hotels. Travelers who test negative sit in an outside waiting area away from the main terminal for their buses. The positivity rate has hovered around 5 percent.
“Brownsville is not seeing a crisis,” said Mendez, adding that the city is testing about 75 to 100 people a day who board buses to other U.S. cities to join relatives. “We haven’t even gotten close to being overwhelmed.”
City officials and nonprofit organizations can’t force families to stay in the hotels, but Darling, the McAllen mayor, said no one they track has left isolation prematurely so far.
“We tell them if they want to leave on our buses, they need to follow our rules,” he said.
The city has spent nearly $200,000 of taxpayer money it hopes will be reimbursed by the federal government, but Abbott’s rejection of Federal Emergency Management Agency funding from the Biden administration will complicate matters for localities.
Darling said his city is full of compassionate people, and they are doing the rest of the country a favor in taking care of migrant families on the front end of their journeys.
Along the border, faith organizations, local emergency managers and immigration advocates say they have learned from previous surges how best to coordinate. They are preparing to receive flights and buses full of asylum seekers, mostly recently released families with small children, to ease capacity problems that critics say Department of Homeland Security officials should have anticipated.
Coronavirus restrictions have put capacity limits on shelters run by community organizations on the U.S. side of the border, but the numbers so far are not at 2019 levels, said Pastor Michael Smith of the Holding Institute in Laredo. Shelters and temporary detention facilities operated by U.S. Health and Human Services contractors, however, are at or over capacity.
But without more orderly intervention, the numbers could overwhelm. The Biden administration plans to deploy FEMA to the border to help with the migration surge as the administration tries to quickly scale up space to temporarily hold and process migrants and unaccompanied children — many between the ages of 13 and 17.
“The failure to have an administrative process is causing a humanitarian crisis,” Smith said during a news conference organized by Laredo activists. “There are solutions to the issues, but they are not solutions that call for militarizing the border.”
“We need robust infrastructure at our ports of entry to handle people seeking asylum,” said Tannya Benavides of the No Border Wall Coalition. “We need more lawyers and judges, not more troops or technology.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) only invited one representative of the immigrant advocacy community to a roundtable to discuss the crisis at the border. He invited three.