Prosperity, freedom and a future. Neon signs, health care and job opportunities. America looks pretty good.
From a place of economic despair, violent streets and poverty-stricken residential zones, crossing the Texas-Mexico border into the U.S., by whatever means, is tempting for many.
Every year half a million undocumented people of many nationalities try to cross into the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 11.6 million unauthorized immigrants were living in America in 2008, a vast majority of them Mexicans.
U.S. and local governments, however, are buckling down on illegal immigration, not because they want to limit people from finding success and opportunity in the States, but rather because the illicit activity is associated with crimes such as human smuggling, drug trafficking, gangs, prostitution, kidnappings, murders, auto theft, gun running and violence.
Carlos Maldonado is the chief of police in the border city of Laredo, Texas. He believes illegal immigration is a concern.
“(It) needs to be addressed at the political level. It’s not just a law enforcement issue,” Maldonado said.
The Laredo Police Department’s main goal, according to its chief, is to safeguard citizens and others in the city and to encourage everyone to report crimes.
“The last thing you want to do is to ostracize any particular group of people,” Maldonado said. “If … they become fearful of police, they are less likely to respond to and report suspicious activity.”
With many other concerns in the city, Maldonado said checking immigration status is not a top concern for his department.
“I don’t think it should be a primary objective from a law enforcement perspective,” he said. “If we have someone engaged in illegal activities, I am going to do everything I can to have them deported. But if it is someone who has committed a traffic violation who works everyday and tries to be a good citizen, although they do not have legal status here, I will probably not ask them to prove citizenship.”
Problems exist in the vague interpretation of proper moral procedures.
“It’s a challenge for us as a country because they’re really not our citizens to take care of, but they’re here,” Maldonado said. “(We) do the best we can.”
The path is unclear on every level of jurisdiction.
“It’s a policy issue that needs to be explored where there is no real guidance,” Maldonado said. “It is a fine line that we have to walk, and … the U.S. cannot do it alone. We need to work as closely as we can with our Mexican counterparts, and those are relations we’re working on a constant basis.”
The question comes down to why Mexican citizens illegally cross into the U.S. Maldonado said it’s all about the opportunities and close family ties in America. Also, the process to becoming a U.S. citizen is tedious and takes seven to 10 years to complete, according to the chief. This is a reason some avoid the legal path.
Additionally, those living in Texas across the border from Nuevo Laredo are sometimes willing to help immigrants illegally get over because of their strong sentimental ties.
“The community here is … probably more tolerant with illegal immigration issues than anywhere else in the country,” Maldonado said.
He believes if Mexico makes long-term changes in its government system, the number of undocumented immigrants in America will decrease.
“It’s not just us against them,” he said. “Once you start peeling the layers and looking at the issues, you realize it’s not a simple thing. Once Mexico starts improving and providing opportunities for citizenry to improve, maybe the appeal to come to the United States will diminish. But it will … never disappear.”
Trickling throughout the nation, the negative effects of unauthorized immigration are appearing across all 50 states.
Maricopa, Ariz., county sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is cracking down on the problem. His department has arrested more than 2,000 illegal aliens and smugglers. But complaints about Arpaio’s policy have included racial profiling and power abuse regarding equality of civil rights. Arpaio has had 2,600 lawsuits filed against him.
“I don’t have anything to hide.” he said in response to public criticism.
This shows that common ground has been hard to reach historically and now. Leaders are sometimes charged with being either prejudiced or overly sentimental.
Regardless, illegal immigration and the issues surrounding it, are not confined to immediate border areas.
Senior communication major, Marshall Reeves, whose family members own a ranch 40 miles north of Laredo, said dealings with immigrants are common.
Reeves said, “The border areas are becoming so dangerous. More people are going to be crossing.”
He said the subject of undocumented immigration is touchy and rarely talked about.
“It’s really torn out there,” Reeves said. “There are (those) who support immigrants in coming over here and working hard for their money to provide for their families. There are those … who are completely 1,000 percent against it. Then there are families that are neutral (and) don’t want to get caught up in it because it’s illegal, yet they can’t turn their back on certain things.”
He remembers a situation that impacted his family.
He was in the field working cattle when a pregnant woman with two children, both under 5, passed through the pasture. Reeves, who knows some Spanish, was put in a difficult position when the woman communicated to him she needed water and help.
“My cousin gave her a ride to a bus stop and told her not to come back,” Reeves said. “There are certain times humanity takes over legalities. It’s illegal to help them, but it’s hard to turn your back on a pregnant lady who’s been walking with her two children for days straight.”
Reeves said ranchers come into contact with immigrants frequently, but every person’s attitude is different, and their responses depend on the immigrants’ actions as well.
“(Some) immigrants would break the locks on our barn doors and stay there a few nights if it was cold or rainy,” Reeves said. “They can destroy a lot of your property, and sometimes they steal as many crops as they can.”
He is careful in responding.
“If you’re nice to them, they’ll go about their business,” Reeves said.
Some ranchers try to handle the situation themselves, but Reeves said that often gets violent. Others call border security with complaints of high undocumented immigration traffic and give permission for agents to use their land to stop foreigners from passing through.
“America was built on people getting a fresh start and finding new beginnings, but you don’t want to be the (person) just letting everybody in because that’s unsafe, too,” Reeves said. “There are good and bad things, and good and bad people, coming across the border.”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security and targets the people, money and materials that support terrorist and criminal activities.
Nina Pruneda, the public affairs officer for the south Texas area, said the federal government mandates all procedures and operates under specific goals.
“Each and every day we’re out there, 24-7, enforcing the laws of immigration and customs enforcement,” Pruneda said. “Our first priority is national security and public safety.”
Pruneda said the attacks of 9/11 elevated concern.
“We want to know what is going on in our communities. It’s a public safety issue.”
Pruneda said many issues arise as a result of illegal immigration.
“We arrest child pornographers and child predators. They are committing a crime against our most vulnerable,” she said. “We also go after well-known gang members and individuals who are purchasing weapons and ammunition and transporting them through the south.”
Human trafficking and smuggling are also prominent issues.
“Trafficking means people are being bought and are utilized for other means in order to pay their smuggling fees,” Pruneda said. “Some people may be used to work as prostitutes. In most cases, it’s modern-day slavery. Human smuggling is the transportation from one location to another illegally.”
The officer said human trafficking is more common than human smuggling in the Central Texas area.
“It’s a transient point here,” Pruneda said. “It’s a point through which people can get to other parts of the United States.”
She said many Central Americans are seeking refuge in the U.S. and come in along the Texas borders.
“The most individuals we remove from our area of responsibility are people from … Honduras, Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico,” Pruneda said. “A lot of people are utilizing the country of Mexico to gain entry into the U.S.”
Illegal immigration challenges public safety, but Pruneda said federal policy will continue to mandate procedures.
“This is just a quick snapshot of all the things we deal with in keeping our community safe,” she said. “We will continue working with our partners to attack vulnerabilites and keep our country safe, 24-7.”
The Mexican army is fighting its own people. With numerous accounts of drug-related gang violence, kidnappings and gruesome murders, Mexican drug cartels have both the Mexican and American governments fearing the worst. Mexico could dissolve from an independent republic to a chaotic narco-state.
Pentagon Joint Forces Command strategic planner and Navy captain, Sean Buck, said, in such a case, a resulting mass exodus of the Mexican population could cost the U.S.
“You have maybe unplanned or unanticipated migration of people …. You have a humanitarian situation in which we may feel compelled to respond to with other nation states and partners,” Buck said in a National Public Radio feature.
The Mexican people and their government are not solely to blame for America’s porous border.
Pastor Ron Scott of First Baptist Church, Laredo, which is located less than two miles from the border, said the corruption is funded by the U.S.
“We as Americans tend to turn a blind eye over there and forget that the reason the drug cartel has become so strong along the border … is because the United States is the funnel to bring drugs to its consumers,” Scott said. “Anything we can do to decrease dependency on illegal drugs will be a blow on the revenue of the cartels. If you drop the source of revenue, you drop the drug cartel.”
People will do whatever they can to make a living.
“Mexico is a very poor country, and poverty causes people to do some strange things,” Scott said.
America faces challenges as a result of the porous borders and from its neighbor’s spillover of problems. The U.S. depends heavily on the success of Mexico.
“Because of the proximity to Mexico and the family ties people here have with Mexico, there’s no way around it that we’re going to be affected,” he said. “If Mexico fails, it would be a blow to our economy.”