Trips along the Rio Grande, crossing back and forth, always leave me pondering what seems like paradox. I’ve just returned from one such trip. The national narrative about the U.S.-Mexico border is that it is overrun with migrants and that this lack of border control should make us all afraid. While a high number of migrants are crossing, the border region presents constant contradictions to that narrative. (I will use the word migrants to cover both migrants and asylum seekers.)
•High migrant flows ≠ local fear of migrants. The area around Del Rio, Texas is where the largest number of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers crossed the border in recent months. Following the national narrative, one would think that the local population would be greatly disturbed by this presence. Instead, we were told that the locals don’t intersect much with the migrants. The border control system is set up to keep the undocumented out of the public eye. That does not mean that there is no concern, but I heard concern not fear. Locals do get disturbed when migrants get stuck at the border, as happened with a large number of Haitians a few months ago.
•Increased U.S. National Guard and state police ≠ border control. Between Del Rio and Eagle Pass, TX, military vehicles are littered along the main highway. They just sit there. Nonetheless, migrant crossings remain high and the frustration of the Guardsmen with this non-sensical task is well documented. The military presence creates a perverse atmosphere. I felt like I was supposed to be afraid because there were troops there, not because there was something to be afraid of.
•Presence of the wall ≠ fewer migrants. The national narrative is that we need a wall to stop migrants from crossing the border. The reality is more complex. In some areas the wall can limit crossings or funnel people into certain areas. But it doesn’t seem to do much to lessen the overall numbers. We have more miles of wall now than ever before yet we are likely to see increased crossing in the coming months. Another border paradox around the wall is seen in the Texas border cities of Laredo and Eagle Pass, 125 miles apart yet philosophically light-years apart. In downtown Eagle Pass I counted four layers of wall, some chain link, some bollard (the massive posts cemented in the ground close to each other), and some were shipping containers placed next to one another.
•Presence of migrants ≠ unsafe communities. US border cities with a significant flow of migrants like McAllen and El Paso, Texas, are ranked some of the safest cities in the country.
•Violent crime on the Mexican side of the border ≠ violence in the US. The US cities of McAllen, Brownsville and Laredo have sister cities across the river in Mexico called Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. All three Mexican cities are in the state of Tamaulipas, which has a US State Department “Do Not Travel” warning due to the threat of crime and violence. This always seems so strange considering the safety of communities across the river on the U.S. side. But that is the reality.
Under the U.S. national migration narrative – migrants are dangerous, we need to keep them out by increasing security at the border and building walls – the border region is a baffling paradox. As the U.S. moves into another round of national political discussion about migration and the U.S.-Mexico border, we must give more thought to why the national narrative is constantly challenged by local reality.
I look to border residents who do their best to communicate with the rest of us, like South Texas artist Scott Nicol. As he walks the U.S.-Mexico border, he collects homemade ladders that are abandoned by those who use them to scale the bollard fence. He uses them to create works of art. This one leads me to ask, “how does any of this make sense?”