The View from a Border Town

As I write this, I am sitting in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, waiting for my connecting flight to Laredo, TX. To many of you, Laredo is the place then candidate Trump visited to talk about immigration and his wall. To others, it’s just a place in a song or an old Western. To me, it’s the place that much of my family has called home at one time or another for the past 50 years or so. Every time I go—and then come home to Connecticut—I’m struck by how little most people know about the American towns that border Mexico. If you ever visit one of these towns at all, it’s likely to be San Diego and it will be easy to miss the nuances of border life, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned through my experiences in Laredo.

Here’s the first thing: The border is porous in ways you probably do not understand, and both sides benefit. Laredo is the largest land port in the country. But a lot more than goods come across the bridge that spans the decidedly unimpressive Rio Grande every day. Ordinary people have housekeepers, gardeners, and nannies. They are not rich, but labor comes cheap when you’re paying American dollars to people who live “across the river,” as they say. But people also cross over for other reasons, not just to work. People come, often in bus loads, to shop at American stores. Imagine pulling up to your local Target only to find busses full of people from a different country filling the parking lot, ready to do some serious Christmas shopping. If you lived in Laredo, you wouldn’t have to imagine this. It’s just a fact of life.

When I was a kid, this easy back and forth between Laredo and its sister-city Nuevo Laredo, was even more pronounced than it is now. As late as the 1990s, you could head over the bridge to get everything from cheap Vanilla to cheap prescription drugs with the same ease as running to Buckland Mall (if you don’t count the customs stop on the way back). When I was really young, my favorite outfit was a Mexican sundress and cowboy boots we bought in Nuevo Laredo. But the free flow into Mexico has all but stopped. We’ve all heard about escalating cartel violence, and if you live in Laredo, you know about it firsthand. You can literally hear gunshots from across the river, though it’s not quite the hellscape many people probably imagine. It’s basically just a sprawling suburban outpost, filled with more chain stores than I’m personally comfortable with. Nonetheless, outside of the oil and trucking industries, law enforcement is one of the best options for young men in Laredo—and whether you end up in the Sheriff’s department or on Border Patrol, you’ll run into the drug trade sooner or later.

And speaking of Border Patrol, it may be time to dissuade you of some preconceived notions you might have. If all I knew about border security was what I saw in the media, I’d assume it was mostly middle-aged, vigilante, white guys taking matters into their own hands. The truth is, like most jobs in towns like Laredo, the Border Patrol is largely made up of Mexican-Americans (or, as they may prefer to be called, Tejanos). If you were looking to find Latino Trump supporters who are more than happy to see tougher immigration enforcement, Laredo—and towns like it—would be a good place to start.

And if you think run-ins with Border Patrol are limited to the actual border, you’d be wrong. There is basically one highway that leads out of Laredo, and if you want to leave town, you’re going to be stopped at a check point. They look a lot like toll plazas, only the people manning the booths will inquire about your citizenship. How much power they actually have is up for debate. You can find videos all over the internet of people flat out refusing to cooperate with agents, and often there is virtually nothing they can do if you are a citizen who wants to exercise your rights. Imagine if every time you wanted to go to Boston you had to be prepared to prove your citizenship. Weird, right?

Most people crossing the border illegally don’t stay on the border—and frankly, most undocumented immigrants come here legally (on a plane) and then over stay their visas—but it’s still an issue that touches the lives of people here in a very real way. For instance, members of my very extended family have a ranch. Every day they patrol the fence line and repair the spots where people passing through on their way into the States have cut the wire. At least once they’ve found their dog cornering a scared migrant. Being decent people, they fed him and sent him on his way.

Here is something else you should realize about border life—which seems self-evident but may not be to some: They are already living in the majority-minority future so many Trump voters seem to fear. Laredo was once the site of an Air Force Base, which is how my family came to be there. That base is gone now, but what was once a small, remote town, is now sprawling. There are two Targets. It’s a bilingual place where, if you want to partake in the economy, you have to speak at least some Spanish. If you work in a bank, there’s a good chance your biggest customers are from across the river, and looking for a safe place to put their money. If you work in a store, you’ll have those busloads of shoppers to contend with. If you’re a shopper, it’s possible that the store clerk speaks better Spanish than English and so it behooves you to be bilingual as well. But mostly, there’s this: It wasn’t very long ago that this land was literally still Mexico, and you are closer to Mexico than you are to any other town in the United States. The mayor, the judge, the police, the school principal and the teachers, the doctor, and just about everyone else is likely Mexican-American. As the city grows, it’s becoming more diverse, but its heritage remains.

And here’s the most important part… A lot of this may sound strange to you, but the fact is, it works out just fine. People live their lives there just like anywhere else. They have Starbucks, schools, and sushi (though I don’t endorse eating sushi so far from the coastline). They are just on the front lines of many topics the rest of us only discuss in the abstract. And if you plan on visiting, be sure to tell your bank…otherwise you’ll find your debit purchases being declined because the bank is suspicious about the activity.

 

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