Two Bells staffers and I, along with our adviser, Vicky Kendig, just returned last week from the border city, Laredo, Texas.
When we arrived in the city of Laredo, a population of about 220,000, it was clear we entered a culture different from that of many other Texas cities. Even Police Chief Carlos Maldonado likened Laredo to an island, since there are virtually no other large United States cities within a 200-mile radius.
Only the winding Rio Grande separates the city from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a place virtually cohesive with its United States counterpart by culture. After meandering through downtown Laredo (in our van) with only a couple of quick stops to snap pictures, we headed to a small park on the riverfront.
Two bridges grant legal passage from one country to another, creating much hustle and bustle. A constant flow of people crossed the bridge carrying cardboard boxes, shopping bags and rolling suitcases behind them – full of the day’s purchases or personal belongings. Hundreds of people crossed the Rio Grande on the bridge after going through the United States checkpoint.
A mother walked through downtown with children following close behind. One child wore a backpack decorated with Dora the Explorer and carried a plastic sack from Church’s Chicken, perhaps the family’s dinner. Seeing the various shops that carried everything from Nike sneakers to party favors to candles for rosaries made the Hispanic culture unmistakable.
We talked with a border patrolman about his daily routine on the Rio Grande. He shared a trend in trickery used by undocumented immigrants who make it across the river, unknowingly being detected.
One time they apprehended a mother and two daughters who had run for about 10 yards as fast as they could and then stopped in the middle of park, pretending they’d come there to play and had been there a while. Others try to blend in with Laredo families as they have barbecue on the park grounds. Hearing these stories put the process of legalization in a different light.
Countless times I’ve heard it asked (and we even asked ourselves while there), “Why do undocumented immigrants take the risk of the river crossing, of being caught and of deportation? Why not just come the legal way?”
It turns out, the legal way is a long way – taking nearly seven years after paperwork and a series of tests. Looking from “our side of the river,” to the other, Mexico is noticeably different economically. Even with all our media hay day cries of the “economic crisis” in America seeing the dusty roads and homes made of scrap metal in Mexico, where one is either “pobre” or “rico,” Americans have much less to cry about. Why else would there be such draw to come to the United States?
The newspaper research trip, though only two days long, served to broaden my perspective. Because Laredo is so intertwined culturally with Nuevo Laredo, the issue of immigration (both legal and illegal) is complicated.
There are issues I never even thought about, such as the fact that when an undocumented immigrant is caught by the Laredo City Police for a crime like prostitution, he or she must have a medical screening before being admitted into a jail and facing/entering the legal system. Hospitals, however, can refuse to do the screening because the person is undocumented (therefore no insurance or coverage for the fees). The police department cannot bear the financial burden of these screenings. It’s impossible.
So what is the Laredo policeman left to do with undocumented immigrants discovered because they violated the law? Often, the only option is to deport them back across the border, where they can try again tomorrow.
Border patrol does all they can, but even they’re not allowed to trim or mow the brush along the river’s edge (on the U.S. side). However, (as a border patrolman called them) “America lovers” volunteer to trim the weeds along the Rio Grande, making it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to arrive undetected.
Whatever your stance on immigration, there is nothing like a trip to the border. Seeing it for myself made a deeper impression on my opinion-making than any talking ever has.
While on the riverfront, I saw a man dressed in black sweats come out of the brush along Mexico’s river edge. He fell to the ground, lay on his belly and started to get into the Rio Grande. Just as he did, a border patrolman jumped up and rushed toward the river’s edge. The man in sweats jumped up just as quickly and disappeared into the thick brush in Nuevo Laredo.
One border patrolman described other incidents and said today was just like any other day in Laredo.