Is there a crisis at the border? Advocates in Texas say it’s ‘political manipulation’

The Texas governor has sent troops to fortify the border while advocates say the immigration numbers are being politicized

Along the winding road which follows the Rio Grande west from Mission, Texas, dozens of armed border patrol agents, state troopers, soldiers and state and local police are dotted about to catch undocumented migrants entering the country from Mexico.

This is a so-called hotspot for irregular migration – folks crossing the border river without permission to enter the US – in what the Republican party and anti-immigrant activists are calling a crisis at the border. During one afternoon this week, there were more law enforcement vehicles cruising Aalong this dusty 15-mile stretch towards Los Ebanos, a tiny border community connected to Mexico by a hand-operated cable ferry, than there was local traffic.

For a couple of hours nothing much happens, until agents chase down a group – six men and one woman – trying to hide in the dry vegetation.

They are handcuffed and processed on the side of the road, each giving their name, age and country of origin to a bilingual border patrol agent, before placing personal belongings – wallet, jewellery and phone – into individual plastic bags. The sun is piercing; the migrants look exhausted.

Christian, a lanky 20-year-old from Santa Bárbara,Honduras, seems utterly bewildered by what’s just gone down. His family’s crops were destroyed last November when two deadly hurricanes – Eta and Iota – struck within two weeks of each other. The land was flooded for two months, leaving them no harvest and unable to prepare for next season. “Thereare no jobs, and we have no money or food,” he said, shaking his head.

Christian is among a rapidly rising number of climate refugees from Central America – one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to the impacts of global heating.

Emerson, 25, a member of the indigenous Maya Q’eqchi community from Puerto Barrios in Izabal, Guatemala, left behind his wife and two young daughters, hoping to find work. “I’m a machinery mechanic, but the work went down with the pandemic and then things got much worse with Hurricane Eta.”

Ingrid, one of two Salvadorans, said she’s 18 but looks much younger. She’s wearing two plastic wristbands – one red, the other white – which reports suggest are used by coyotes (smugglers or guides) to indicate payments had been made to organized crime groups who control the border.

Ingrid lived with her uncle in Ilopango, a sprawling town on the outskirts of the Salvadoran capital with high levels of gang violence and police brutality, but said she’d come looking for work and a better life after the pandemic left them struggling to make ends meet. Covid has deepened poverty and hunger across Central America and Mexico, and governments have failed to provide adequate, if any, relief.

The migrants were given disposable face masks before being searched and loaded into a green and white border patrol van. They will be expelled; some of them will undoubtedly try to cross again.

The border patrol agents won’t answer any questions, but one said to his colleagues: “This is a good day’s work.” Another said he hoped we would give them good publicity.

After four years of racist, chaotic, anti-immigration policies by the Trump administration – as well as growing desperation fuelled by the pandemic and extreme climate events – the number of people seeking to enter the US is rising.

But advocates in the Rio Grande Valley, where undocumented migrants have long been relied upon for cheap farm labour, reject incendiary claims that the numbers are overwhelming.

“Migration goes up and down, that’s the reality of the border. Biden has different values and has given people hope, but there’s no border crisis, to say so is political manipulation,” said Ramona Casas, director of the migrant advocacy group Arise. “We need to address the root causes and transform the broken immigration system, not more militarization.”

The current uptick started before Biden’s election, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures.

Jenn Budd, a former senior border patrol agent turned whistleblower, said: “The only crisis at the border is the children, which the administration is trying to deal with, anything else is simply not true and an attempt to play politics, make Biden look bad and ensure the money keeps flowing to the border security industry.”

In 2000, a total of 9,212 border patrol agents detained an average of almost 137,000 undocumented migrants a month on the southern border. In the 2021 fiscal year until February, the average was just over 76,000 a month, but the number of agents is more than double compared with 2000.

Earlier this month, the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, deployed state troopers and the national guard to the border after claiming, without evidence, that illegal immigrants were spreading the coronavirus.

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Nina Lakhani