On April 23, the Caravan Against Fear began its last week traveling through Texas. We stopped in Austin, Houston, Corpus Christi, Falfurrias, the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and El Paso. During our stay in Texas, we had the opportunity to meet many different groups including church congregations, grassroots organizations, and statewide partnerships engaged in coalitional work within and outside of SBCC.
During our time in Austin we met with the Workers Defense Project and heard from leaders on the ground about what immigration enforcement looks like in the state’s capital. We had the opportunity to meet with Texas legislators to push back against Senate Bill 4, which seeks to limit local county agencies’ discretion when it comes to collaborating with federal immigration agents. In Houston we listened to important community testimonies and enjoyed cultural performances. We celebrated the distance we’ve traveled thus far. While in Houston we also participated in a march and rally outside of a federal detention center in the heart of downtown Houston.
During our hours long visit in Corpus Christi, local organizations sent a delegation to meet with Blake Farenthold, Republican representative of Texas’ 27th Congressional District. After the delegation, we engaged in a rally and press conference where the unfavorable outcome of the delegation’s meeting were reported back to the larger group. The rest of this day and the next we spent in the southern border region. This included Falfurrias, San Juan, and Hidalgo with affiliate organizations of the Equal Voice Network.
In Texas, we learned about the role that state troopers play along with local law enforcement, Border Patrol and ICE. Texas, like other states, has varied regions that include rural, urban, suburban and border —each differently impacted by enforcement. We felt the high heat and humidity of the Rio Grande Valley, providing us a brief glimpse into the probable experiences of migrants who cross the border through this part of the border region.
During our visit, specifically in the Rio Grande Valley, I had the opportunity to learn more about the region and the border reality in Southern Texas thanks to Hector Guzman Lopez of Border Workers United. See below for part of our conversation:
Q: Can you tell us about who you are, what organization you work for and the work that your organization does?
A: My name is Hector Guzman Lopez I’m from the Rio Grande Valley, originally from Mexico, but I’ve grown up here. I work for Border Workers United, which has two worker centers, one in El Paso, TX called the Labor Justice Committee. The other one here in the Rio Grande Valley, TX, called Fuerza del Valle, a worker center. In both regions we work with low-wage workers to achieve workplace justice and to raise the voice of low-wage workers, all low-wage workers and of course, undocumented low-wage workers as well.
Q: Please tell us about your border community, what makes it unique, what makes it different?
A: Here in the Rio Grande Valley we are in a very very special place. Historically for the big agricultural giants, it’s been the “magic valley”. But for workers, especially farm workers, this was a big farmworker area during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and it still is, but not as big. We’ve known it as the “valley of tears” because of the super-exploitation that’s been prevalent in this land for decades, which continues to this day. That’s unfortunately why our worker center exists. When I say super-exploitation, I’m talking about workers getting paid less than minimum wage, $4-$5/hour or a typical wage for a domestic worker, less than $2/hour. That’s about $150-$250 for 80 hours. Sometimes workers don’t even get paid. This includes carpenters, construction workers, warehouse workers, among many others. Also, the valley’s unique because historically it’s been a hub for migrant agricultural workers. From the Rio Grande Valley, so many families leave to work in the fields of Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho, Illinois, the Midwest, Florida and the Carolina’s in the tobaccos fields. The valley has been a hub for migrant seasonal workers and also now since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for many undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America. We are very unique, the valley is not poor, except that there’s no distribution of wealth, so many goods come through there, by far the McAllen-Reynosa Bridge is one of the biggest inland ports, so many goods go through there but none of that wealth is shared with the community. There’s a lot of employers that are unscrupulous and unethical. What we say in the movement here is that the bigger picture issue is the system that allows them to operate like that. So we desperately need some systemic change here. We’re unique also because we’re a land of migrants and we’ve historically been a welcoming land, with the sanctuary movement in the 1980s from the Central American refugees, and even way back then during slavery times, a lot of enslaved people escaped to this area because they found a haven here.
Q: What are the main challenges your community faces as it relates to border enforcement and border security?
A:Like many borders, from San Diego to Brownsville to here in the Rio Grande Valley, one of our biggest challenges is the authorities actually being accountable, that includes Border Patrol, ICE, state troopers. Here in Texas, the politicians in Austin have decided that this area needs a billion dollars of investment in state troopers because to them it’s an outlaw area. So in the last two years they’ve invested a billion dollars. In this legislative session they are requesting another billion dollars for the continued presence of extra state troopers, hundreds of state troopers that are here in the valley, hyper vigilant, that work with other authorities. Although we are for the enforcement of the law, the amount of state trooper presence has created a big climate of fear. People are scared to go to the store and to go out. There’s many police departments that collaborate with Border Patrol and unnecessarily will call Border Patrol when they stop somebody for a minor traffic violation. This jeopardizes the safety of many families and in many instances it violates a lot of human rights. We have a huge problem with disappeared migrants and migrants that die in the brush trying to cross a checkpoint that’s about an hour north from us, the Falfurrias checkpoint. A lot of migrants, to not risk detention, will walk with a guide or on their own around the checkpoint, most make it but many don’t. Either they fall sick, they get left behind or they get bit by some animal. Unfortunately, there’s a human rights catastrophe where literally hundreds and hundreds of migrants have died and many more are disappeared and their families in Central America and Mexico do not have closure.
Q: What would you like to say to lawmakers and administration officials who visit the border but only meet with the Border Patrol and other security officials but rarely meet with community members?
A: It’s so typical, especially now with the new administration, we’ve had so many visits from all these high level politicians from D.C., making border tours and then pretending that they learned about the border. I would say, let’s be democratic about it. Meet with the communities that are affected, meet with the communities who they, as congress people and political leaders are supposed to represent. Let’s talk about safety. How safe are we when people are afraid to report crimes? Are we making a climate where domestic violence and other human rights violations, like labor and human trafficking or extreme exploitation are prevalent? Or are we creating a climate where we are combatting that and fighting that for the good of our society? I think that politicians owe it to the U.S. population, to civil society, to meet and sit down with communities and hear them out, instead of coming and just meeting with Border Patrol and law enforcement, and walking away with the same mentality that they had when they arrived. They’re not open about it. They come and they leave with the same mentality, they don’t learn anything and they don’t really get to see what’s happening on the ground and how people are directly affected.
Q: What does a better border mean to you?
A: A better border, a better Texas, a better nation for us is a place where workers and working families don’t have to worry about not getting paid or about not getting paid what the law demands. Where they know that if that does happen to them, the authorities will listen and will follow through on criminal complains. Where there are sufficient resources for state and federal institutions to fully investigate these unscrupulous employers. Also, a better border is where Hidalgo County and Cameron County are not the poorest counties in the nation. As I said earlier, there’s a lot of wealth here and the political leaders who are elected need to have a vision and sit down with the population and make a plan to get us out of this poverty, together. It does not make any sense that all these cities are giving tax incentives to multi-nationals like Walmart and big car dealerships. Instead they should be making sure that local markets are open to local businesses or making sure that these companies pay their fair share of taxes and fair wages to the local population. Poverty does not happen just because it’s inbred in the Mexican population here, it’s systemic and unfortunately a lot of political leaders perpetuate it with their decisions. We need to seriously think about how we’re going to combat poverty and make sure that the Rio Grande Valley is a safe place for people to grow, to prosper and fully develop our culture.
Q: What are your hopes for the caravan while it's here in your region?
A: The Caravan Against Fear is really really important. A lot of undocumented people don’t have fear but the majority do. The Caravan is so important to show that were a connected movement with the other border cities and states and throughout the nation, we are in this together. What happens in South Texas affects the rest of the nation, what happens in San Diego affects all of us. How they’re treating the Haitian refugees over there affects us and how they treat refugees and undocumented immigrants here affects all of us. I think the caravan brings that to light and I hope the caravan can take a little bit of the Rio Grande Valley to the rest of the nation.
Q: What impact do you hope the caravan has at a large scope?
A: Similarly, it’s understanding and creating this unity amongst our movements, amongst worker movements, amongst movements against domestic violence, amongst civil rights and human rights movements. I also hope the caravan is the first of many many other opportunities to gather where we can work diligently where we can construct a movement for dignity for all.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add that I didn't ask or that relates to what we've been talking about?
A: I’d like to add that there is a lot of xenophobia and a lot of hatred and I ask for the public and people to reflect on the so-called “undocumented worker” problem. This so called problem is not our biggest issue in the United States, realize that beyond that there is poverty, there is trade agreements that have allowed manufacturing to leave the country, and that’s not the fault of migrants. On the contrary, because of those trade agreements we are coming here, people are coming here. Also, let’s not be so naïve about this—if you build a wall, that’s not going to stop migration. If you want to stop migration, you have to address the root causes, people will continue to migrate as long as our countries and our societies are torn by physical and economic violence, and as long as there are no opportunities, people will continue to come and that’s guaranteed. Migration is also natural so rather than throw all this hatred against our immigrant brothers and sisters, we should be welcoming them and working with them in order to create a better society in the U.S. for all.