What Obama’s Immigration Action Means for the Rio Grande Valley

By Aura Bogado Dec 10, 2014

Shortly after President Obama announced a series of executive actions he would take on immigration last month, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a memo outlining what’s called the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign Plan. The plan includes the creation of three new task forces–two geographical and one largely investigative in nature–to increase security on the border between Mexico and the United States. But some residents who live in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley say the measure is misguided and will only increase the militarization already present in their communities.

The DHS, which concedes that the total number of unauthorized crossings on the southern border "are at the lowest rate since the 1970s," had already scrambled to deal with the child migrant crisis over the summer. But Obama’s administration is nevertheless adding Border Patrol agents and other initiatives, despite the decline in child migrants.

Many people have celebrated Obama’s executive actions in November. But people like Marina Sáenz Luna, whose family has long-standing roots in south Texas, are disappointed with the focus on border security. "My heart totally sank," says Sáenz Luna, who’s a staffer at Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio.

Like many people from the Rio Grande Valley, Sáenz Luna works outside of the valley, but keeps close ties to home and visits often. But, that crossing in and out of the valley is monitored through an internal checkpoint–one that mimics an international port of entry. The Texas Border Patrol first opened a small station in Falfurrias, 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in 1940. Since then, the massive checkpoint has become a three- to five-lane inspection point. Three acres are home to various administrative buildings, a processing center and a detention center, all monitored by high-tech cameras and other security features. The wait to enter in or out of the Rio Grande Valley can be as little as just a few minutes–but can sometimes take more than an hour. No other road connects the valley to the rest of Texas, so most commuters have little choice but to have to pass through the checkpoint in a region largely surrounded by brush.

Aside from the wait, the process itself can be disheartening. Agents sometimes quiz people at the internal checkpoint for details about their trip. Sáenz Luna recalls how during college, an agent demanded to know what she’d had for lunch. Then she was interrogated about what kind of salsa she had with her tacos–once in English, once in Spanish, and then in English once more before she was allowed to go through."Ever since I was a child, just to even leave the valley felt like asking for permission to be a part of the rest of the United States," Sáenz Luna says. She adds that her family has never been fully accepted because some of them only speak Spanish, or because of their skin color. "I hesitate to say we’re second-class citizens, because it’s not the same as being African-American, but we’ve always felt a sense of being lesser than."

U.S. citizens and people who are otherwise authorized to live in the United States are able to cross at Falfurrias, despite the wait and the sometimes-humiliating exchanges with authorities. But for those people who live in the Rio Grande Valley who are undocumented, the stakes are a lot higher.

"If you’re undocumented, you can never get out of here," says Efren Olivares, a staff attorney with the South Texas Civil Rights Project. "You’re trapped in these 70 miles between the border and the checkpoint." Undocumented immigrants, many of whom are drawn to agricultural work opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, do earn slightly higher wages than they would in Mexico. Therefore they often stay in the valley because they know they’ll find it hard to cross at the internal checkpoint in Falfurrias.

But being stuck in that valley means being subject to precarious living. Although the federal minimum wage is $7.25, for example, it’s not uncommon for undocumented workers to earn much less. "It fosters labor exploitation beyond what’s usually imaginable–it’s normal for domestic workers here to be paid less than $2 per hour," points out Hector Guzman Lopez, who works with Fuerza Del Valle Workers Center. Workers’ fear of police and border patrol, says Guzman Lopez, allows employers to drive down wages for undocumented workers.

The valley trap also means that when residents are being evacuated during hurricane advisories, undocumented immigrants hide in the valley–risking death rather than face the Falfurrias station.

Sáenz Luna, who visits from San Antonio, describes a scene in the valley as one that’s under constant surveillance. "It feels like a war zone, with local police, state troopers, sheriffs and Border Patrol are in jeeps and helicopters, while drones fly over us with billboards recruiting even more people to join the Border Patrol." That presence will only grow under Obama’s executive action.

For undocumented people already living in the Rio Grande Valley who want to head north, that increase in law enforcement means that crossing within the United States becomes even more dangerous–and includes the risk of death. According to the Associated Press, 307 people died at or near the U.S.-Mexico border for fiscal year 2014. That’s a 15-year low. But the bulk of those deaths happened in the Rio Grande Valley. (Representatives from DHS were unavailable for comment by press time.)

Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, aren’t surprised that the president is focusing more resources on border security–although they’re disappointed in what the result means for the Rio Grande Valley immigrant community. "Obama’s executive orders appeals to right-wing elements in his own party and to the Republicans," says Guzman Lopez, who describes the region he lives in as one that’s hyper-militarized. "But none of this is necessary if you prioritize human rights."