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Business & Economy Commentary Immigration

Opinion: To address problems and opportunities at the border, listen to the people who live here

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By Beto O’Rourke

I’m from the border city of El Paso. 

My parents and grandparents, too. We trace our time in this region back to my great-grandparents, Irish immigrants who followed railroad jobs from Missouri, to Nebraska, to New Mexico, and finally settled in El Paso. They chose to stay here and build their lives here. They walked these same streets, hiked these same mountains, took in these same brilliant sunsets. They sent their kids to El Paso High School a hundred years ago, the same school where our oldest son Ulysses will be a freshman this fall.

Beto O’Rourke

My great-grandparents stayed here so that they and their kids could get ahead, so that they could enjoy the natural beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Franklin Mountains, and so that they could give back to El Paso and to America, finding ways to contribute to this community’s success.

That’s the story of so many immigrant families here, who come from the world over and choose El Paso and make us a better, stronger, and safer community. Very often the rest of the country fails to see this, or as in the case of the former president, will even willfully disregard the facts and seek to scapegoat immigrants and the border as a threat instead of an opportunity for our country. 

But El Pasoans, and fronterizos in general, seem to know whatever the challenges posed by our badly outdated immigration laws, the immigrants who come here are a big part of what makes us great in the first place.

So it got my attention when in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable small talk conversation at the grocery store meat counter, Elvia, the woman helping to fill my order asked, “When are we going to do something about these immigrants?” 

Elvia continued: “Of course they’re coming here, when we give them free housing, food, health care. Why wouldn’t they? And it’s people like me working hard and paying my taxes who end up paying for it. Somebody’s got to do something about this.” 

I’ve known Elvia for a while. She’s been supportive of my work on City Council and in Congress, and like me, she’s the descendant of immigrants (in her family, from Mexico). How do I explain the anxiety she feels about immigrants right now, an anxiety that is shared by many throughout the border? How do I account for her repeating falsehoods about immigrants taking housing, health care, and benefits from her and other U.S. citizens?

First, a lot of Texans, especially on the border, are struggling to make ends meet, and that can generate a tremendous amount of anxiety and stress. Elvia was deemed an “essential worker” during the pandemic, meaning that she was risking her life to go to work each day last year for around $11/hour. A living wage in El Paso is closer to $13/hour. When you’re working that hard, through these tough conditions, to make a wage that is barely a living, you have every right to be angry.

Second, former President Donald Trump, Fox News, and the universe of nativist American media have given Elvia and other Americans working on the edge of the middle class someone to blame: the immigrant. 

They have built and stoked a powerful false narrative that immigrants are dangerous thieves of our resources who “come in and just immediately go and collect welfare.” They warn us that immigrants are “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” and that they’re “taking our jobs…taking our money…killing us.” 

Despite these claims being false, this story of the dangerous immigrant “invading” our country has been repeated long enough, often enough, and by enough people in positions of power and influence that it’s taken on the power of a commonly held truth. It’s not even up for debate or discussion with millions of our fellow Americans. The only question they have is, “what are we going to do about them?” 

Third, there are some real, unprecedented challenges and frustrations facing Texas border communities right now. Unauthorized migration reached a 20-year high in April and has remained high, with 180,034 migrant apprehensions occurring in May. The increase in apprehensions is due in large part to a Trump-era public health order (which President Biden has continued) that has turned the majority of migrants away at the border during the pandemic, prompting repeat crossings by many of the same migrants. But still, the inflated numbers have understandably left many border residents on edge.

That’s partially because many people living in cities like El Paso are still reeling from the devastating, disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on their communities. The pandemic has hit Texas border cities harder than nearly any other area in the country, with death rates for residents younger than 65 reaching nearly three times the national average and nearly twice the statewide average. 

But growing anti-immigrant sentiment in border communities reaches far beyond concerns about scarce resources during the pandemic. The deep canvassing efforts that I and other Powered by People volunteers have carried out in Laredo and other border areas reveal that fears of immigrants bringing crime over the border rank as a top concern for residents. 

One woman I spoke to in El Paso told me that immigrants routinely converge in the early morning on her street in the Lower Valley, drawn by a lighted billboard which must serve as a convenient landmark for them as they cross over from Mexico. After arriving in her neighborhood, they are quickly picked up by smugglers who help them continue their journey deeper into the U.S. 

When I asked her if she had witnessed any violence, theft, or property destruction, she told me she hadn’t but that she has a number of elderly neighbors and worries for their safety. I can understand that. If there were dozens of transient strangers gathering in my neighborhood on a regular basis, I’d be concerned too.

To be clear, border cities like El Paso are home to some of the leading humanitarian and aid organizations in the country. Annunciation House, Las Americas, LUPE, and the Border Network for Human Rights, for example, reflect a commonly held consensus in our region that despite our relative poverty we have the opportunity and responsibility to help the refugee and their family in their hour of greatest need. That is still a widely held sentiment along the border — but the fact that it is threatened by the fear and anxiety that I am hearing from so many concerns me.

It also concerns me that political theatrics around immigration have left border communities to deal with entirely insufficient, politically charged responses to the border by state and federal leaders alike, which routinely fail to meet the challenge of irregular migration flows and illegal drugs entering the country.

As Gov. Greg Abbott makes plans to use state funds to finish the border wall that Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump started, many property owners along the border are still pursuing land condemnation lawsuits initiated during Trump’s administration. Those living near the Rio Grande are still waiting for the federal government to restore the flood levees damaged by unfinished border wall projects — praying that the repairs take place before hurricane season begins. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has focused primarily on addressing the violence, poverty, corruption, and climate crisis driving migration from Central America — over 2,000 miles away. While these are much-needed measures to sustainably stem migration flows over the long term, the administration’s approach to the border itself has left residents wanting. 

While Biden has stopped construction of the border wall, reports of continued land seizures have left families frustrated, and local officials have pleaded with the administration to reimburse their governments for costs incurred while caring for migrants.

And for decades, as administration after administration tightens legal avenues to legally cross into the United States — to pursue temporary work and education opportunities, or even visit family — we’ve made it less likely that immigrants will return home once they’ve crossed into the United States. Fearing they’ll never be able to cross back over if they leave, many feel like they have no choice but to stay and live in the shadows.

I understand why some border residents are anxious about immigration and why they fear those who are now coming to America via our communities. When you consider the jobs that don’t pay, the fact that Texas border cities are some of the most impoverished and underinsured in the nation, the recent decimation of border families during the pandemic, and the unrelenting fear-mongering that directs border residents’ justified anger and frustration at immigrants instead of those in power, you understand why we are seeing a shift in sentiment. 

But if the border has borne the brunt of these challenges, it is also the border that can provide the solutions. Here are some things I think we can do, based on what I’ve heard from those I’ve listened to in my community and throughout the Texas-Mexico border:

First, improve the lives of those who live on the border. Increase the minimum wage to a living one. Expand Medicaid, at a minimum, so that more people can afford to fill their prescriptions, see a doctor, and take their kid to the dentist. Invest in deferred maintenance and delayed infrastructure projects that can help the border thrive — international bridges, ports of entry, and broadband internet in the more rural areas would be a good start. 

And it wouldn’t hurt if we sped up the process of reestablishing travel and tourism visas for Mexican nationals. Most years Mexicans spend billions of dollars in our local economies (in some U.S. border communities, those dollars account for half of all retail spending), but for the last year and a half they’ve been unable to legally cross into cities like El Paso, Laredo, Eagle Pass, Del Rio, McAllen, and Brownsville to buy goods and services from our local retailers and providers.

Second, establish a safe, legal, and manageable process for those coming to this country, now. We are the wealthiest, most powerful country on the face of the planet. We have the resources and capacity to accept asylum seekers and refugees and reunite family members separated by the international border. What we don’t have is an immigration system adequate for the challenge. We’re approaching 40 years since we last comprehensively rewrote our immigration laws. So let’s listen to the people of the border who encourage us to expand guest-worker programs; prioritize family reunification; fully legalize Dreamers and their parents; and make the naturalization process easier and quicker. There’s a lot more we can do, but that would be a great start.

Third, build upon the work the Biden administration has done in Central America and the vice president’s recent trip there by strengthening ties to civil society throughout the region, holding corrupt officials and governments accountable, and working with our partners in the hemisphere to process asylum seekers and refugees closer to their country of origin. We must also look at America’s inputs to the problems people face in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Climate change, the war on drugs, and the legacy of our involvement in the region’s civil wars have all contributed to the suffering that people are now fleeing. Working on the root causes of migration in and near the Northern Triangle countries will be a long, difficult task, but it’s the surest way to make sustainable, long-term progress.

Lastly, we must push back against the false narrative that Trump, Abbott, and Fox News continue to peddle to win votes and ratings. The border is not dangerous, immigrants are not a threat, and the solution is definitely not walls, militarization, or violence. 

In fact, when Trump warns of “invasions” and “infestations”, when Abbott urges Texans to “take matters into our own hands” when it comes to immigration, not only is the border denied any real solutions to our challenges, but it is the border residents themselves who bear the brunt of the consequences that follow. Just ask the families of the 23 people killed two years ago in El Paso by a man claiming he was repelling an Hispanic invasion of Texas.

If America is truly interested in solving problems and taking advantage of opportunities at the U.S.-Mexico border, then Americans must listen to the people who actually live there. 

Beto O’Rourke is a former El Paso City Council member and represented El Paso in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2013-2019.

Cover photo: The Paso del Norte Bridge seen from Ciudad Juárez’s Presidencia Municipal, with New Mexico’s Mount Cristo Rey in the background. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)