When Gov. Greg Abbott (R) arrived at the southern border on Thursday, he was met with a decidedly mixed reaction.
The Texas Republican had come to the Rio Grande Valley to support President Trump’s call to send National Guard troops to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, part of an escalating response to immigration and White House concerns over safety. Flanked by Texas Guard troops, Abbott embraced much of Trump’s border rhetoric, emphasizing crime and gang violence.
“This operation is necessary in order to deal with an escalation in cross-border traffic,” the staunchly conservative governor insisted while speaking in Weslaco, which lies at the southern tip of Texas.
“What just the Rio Grande Valley sector alone is dealing with is more than 450 apprehensions a day. It has gotten back to levels that are very high,” he went on. “The federal government has a duty and responsibility to secure our border.”
That reaction was far from uniform. As Abbott announced an increase of Texas National Guard troops at the border, protesters waved signs and decried the decision. “We say NO National Guard” read one sign. “NO Militarizacion de Fronteras” read another, arguing against the militarization of the border.
More than 760 Texas National Guard troops were already involved in the effort as of Thursday, a number set to grow weekly until there are around 1,400 troops total in the area. That means a steady troop presence at the border — much to the chagrin of residents.
“El Paso is safer than Washington D.C., than Chicago, than most of the country’s major cities. But they still insist that we need walls, that we need to militarize the border,” Fernando Garcia lamented on Thursday afternoon.
Garcia, who serves as executive director for the Border Network for Human Rights, told ThinkProgress that the Trump administration has a “distorted reality” of what the border is, pushing a narrative of the region as dangerous and uncontrolled. But a scan of general data immediately calls that depiction into question — the southern border is, arguably, one of the safest parts of the United States.
Trump is not the first president to call for troops to patrol the border — Presidents Bush and Obama both did the same, in 2006 and 2010 respectively. But Trump has long honed in on the border as a source of contention. The White House has pushed for a costly wall cutting off the United States from Mexico, in addition to cracking down on immigration and scaling up detentions and deportations.
This latest focus on the border comes amid rising tensions with Mexico over North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations, as well as news coverage last week of a caravan carrying people — primarily Hondurans — through Mexico in an effort to claim asylum at the U.S. border.
There was never any real evidence that the caravan posed a threat to the United States, but the endeavor appears to have spooked Trump. After several days spent tweeting about the caravan, the president called for troops to secure the border — even though federal data indicates that border crossings are actually lower than they’ve ever been.
The caravan has since disbanded, but the troops are still coming. Officials have said the National Guard will be helping mostly with surveillance and technology and will not be permitted to arrest or detain individuals, but border residents are still alarmed.
“[Gov.] Abbott didn’t bother to listen to…border residents, even after people protested to remind him this is not a war zone and that more troops are not welcome. This is our home, not a playground for political games,” Dani Marrero Hi, director of bilingual multimedia platform Neta Rio Grande Valley, told ThinkProgress. On Wednesday, Neta launched a petition calling on Abbott to halt the deployment and respect the wishes of border communities. A number of state-wide and border-based organizations are sponsoring the petition, emphasizing that the deployment signifies a disregard for the region, which is heavily populated by immigrants and the Latinx community.
Cristina Tzintzun, the founder and executive director of progressive Latinx organization and petition sponsor Jolt, called the build-up “dangerous” and panned the decision as a broader political effort to “demonize people of color, immigrants and asylum seekers.” Her comments reflected overarching sentiments shared by other Texas activists, as well as border residents more broadly.
“[O]utsider elected officials in both Texas and Washington need to listen to the voices of the people that live in the borderlands, those directly impacted by anti-immigrant policies,” said Bekah Hinojosa, a conservation organizer based in the border town of Brownsville.
“Our community is already heavily militarized: Cameras line the international bridges, we are surrounded by border checkpoints, border patrol helicopters can be seen in the sky, and agents patrol every highway,” she told ThinkProgress. “[W]e reject this latest move by Trump and Abbott to deploy National Guard personnel and further militarize our home.”
Militarization of the border was a concern voiced by virtually every resident ThinkProgress spoke with this week. After California, Texas is home to the second-largest undocumented immigrant population in the United States, as well as the second-largest immigrant population more broadly. Border residents argue their communities aren’t helped by the presence of more law enforcement and troops — if anything, the build-up only adds to a pre-existing climate of mistrust.
State laws like SB4, an anti-immigration measure targeting so-called sanctuary cities, have already stirred unease and fear across the border. Worry over the 2020 Census, which is set to include a citizenship question, is also haunting residents, many of whom already lack representation and funding, something an inaccurate Census count would only exacerbate. But politicians aren’t hearing their concerns.
“People that live here will tell you that having dozens and dozens of border agents in addition to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents only furthers the fear they feel,” Efrén C. Olivares, the racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, told ThinkProgress.
Olivares said that efforts like the petition are a crucial measure of how residents actually feel about the White House call and the compliance of the Texas government.
“This was a top-bottom directive,” he said. “The Abbott administration was happy to jump on that train without consulting anyone in the Valley. No officials were even contacted that I know of.”
That disregard seems set to continue. In addition to Texas troops, Arizona has already sent 338 troops. Both California and New Mexico have been critical of Trump on immigration, but the latter intends to deploy 250 troops while the former relented earlier this week and agreed to provide 400 National Guard members.
John-Michael Torres, who works with Rio Grande community services group La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), said his organization led a protest against the National Guard deployment on Thursday and indicated further action might be in the works. Other residents said the same.
“We’re tired of being used as part of the political gamesmanship. People who are not from the border, who have never been to the border, use these imagined ideas of violence,” said Olivares. “And that is not really compatible with what’s really happening there.”
“We, the ones who live on the border, have to live with the consequences,” he added.