In My Family’s Texas Border Town, Xenophobia is Getting the Boot

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Aerial view of the Rio Grande.

When people first meet me, a white Harvard student from a Texas border town, and hear that I study immigration policy and am passionate about progressive immigrant causes, they tend to do a double-take. What most Americans – progressives certainly included – don’t realize, is that while communities on the West Texas border of Mexico like Clint are, indeed, conservative farming towns centered around centuries-old churches, small-talk at the local post office, and family living rooms, they are also places of profound commitment to the immigrant movement, long displaying compassion toward migrant families and children.

My father, his father, and his father before him all grew up in Clint, a tiny valley crisscrossed by irrigation canals just North of Rio Grande, with pecan trees and cotton fields in every direction – a place that has seen the toils of citizen and noncitizen alike. I grew up attending the local elementary school, and learned to drive on the dirt roads of my grandparents’ cotton farm a half-mile away from the location of a new proposed shelter that would house some 3,500 children who crossed the border fleeing violence in Central America. If completed, the shelter would be the largest permanent migrant housing facility of its kind in the United States, and it is sparking debate from those on all sides of the issue, both within and outside the walls of the local town hall.

With the ongoing debate centered on how these Central American children should be cared for in the United States, much has been made of hateful anti-immigrant groups across the country like those who turned busloads of immigrant families away from a shelter in Murrieta, California earlier this summer. But in my family’s hometown of 926 residents just East of El Paso, the narrative about a proposed shelter site that would more than quadruple the population of the town has taken on an entirely different tone. The proposed shelter is projected to create some 430 jobs with the staff required to manage the facility, in a community with a 9.3 percent unemployment rate and a median household income of only $30,700.

I spoke to officials from Clint about the proposal, and while several are still hesitant or lukewarm, with some opposed, they all told me they believe in providing humane treatment for these kids.

Democratic State Representative Mary Gonzalez said she is hesitant about supporting such a large-scale shelter. Like Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, she wasn’t sure that the large-scale shelters are the most humane housing option, but she is adamant about the nation’s obligation to care for them properly. “We need to understand first that these children are fleeing violence that most of us can’t begin to comprehend – they definitely are refugees who deserve to be treated with love and compassion,” she told me.

County Commissioner Vince Perez also said it was too soon to take a position on the proposed shelter, but said border communities like Clint were most prepared to shelter kids. Speaking about organizations like Annunciation House, he said, “I visited the existing center where these migrants were coming in El Paso, and I saw the volunteers and families that came together to help them, and it really was an amazing operation.”

Even those elected officials who oppose the building of the 3,500-bed shelter, like Clint’s town mayor, Dale Reinhardt, are steering clear of the hateful narrative that overtook Murrieta’s political Main Street. Mayor Reinhardt told me, discussing what he hopes for in the upcoming town hall debate, “I don’t want to see the hateful stuff that’s out there on immigration coming to Clint. The politics should be taken to a different ball park.” The mayor’s opposition to the facility, he said, also came from a place of concern for the children, as he suggested more humane options with smaller housing numbers and more established health services to ensure for their proper care.

Perez, the county commissioner, scoffed at Republican proposals to send the national guard to the border. “Fences just won’t stop the flow of people fleeing truly desperate situations, and communities like El Paso along the border understand that and have always shown a willingness to help,” he said. When I asked him about how Clint might compare to towns like Murrieta, specifically, and whether he anticipated hateful anti-immigrant protest, the young county commissioner was steadfast in his belief that borderlanders had nuanced views on the situation and wouldn’t be seen turning back busses of migrant children; he said, “regardless of our views on immigration, we’re facing a crisis and local communities are looking to help folks – people here understand what is going on. Those hate groups aren’t coming from border communities.”

In Clint, inclusion for immigrant children has long been woven into the historical narrative of the community. The faith-base of the town – adobe, bell-tower sanctuaries of the Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic varieties – have been aiding child migrants in need for years, with long-standing school uniform drives, food pantries, and volunteer tutoring services. Even the public education system has been uniquely committed to inclusive practices, as elementary students like my childhood-self were given the chance to learn alongside both native English- and Spanish-speakers in “dual language programs” which replaced archaic English-as-a second-language standards and encouraged kids to help each other and to understand that America is, if nothing else, a place where mutual respect and shared empathy really do matter.

Clint is a community that has the chance to avoid being the next Murrieta, California and to show the country what Americans in small towns can do when we come together to help those in need.

Zach Fields is an immigration intern at the Center for American Progress