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Sundown McAllen

Updated: Jan 18

McAllen, Texas, where the wall is not actually the border. (March 2023)

I love small border towns. There is a unique community of shared cultures and experiences that exists on both sides. My time as an Border Patrol agent and a border resident has centered around the small border towns of Tecate, Campo, Potrero and Pine Valley, California. The stories told by locals in McAllen about how it used to be before the militarization of the border are similar to the stories I tell about California's southern border before Operation Gatekeeper walled us off from our southern neighbors. I consider myself fortunate to have known the border before deterrence policies and the military industrial complex was introduced.

The people who call this area of Texas home are as hard working and affable as you will find anywhere in the world. The community is filled will all the recreational parks and entertainment that can be found in most American towns. It is small in population, big in land and water with amenities that do not force one to drive to the nearest large city. The schools appear to be in excellent shape; the roads are better paved than in San Diego. The University of Texas even has a local site in the Rio Grande Valley.

And yet, McAllen is a war zone.

I could feel it even before my plane landed. Though not as intense as a what an undocumented person or a person of color likely feels, I still felt it as a woman, as a lesbian, as a person who cares about people regardless of their citizenship. The feeling is not a sense of safety or comfort that our government so often promises we will feel with all these cops and surveillance but one of being watched, one of waiting for them to put a hand on your shoulder before asking you what you are doing in their area that they have deemed dangerous.

It is oppressive in McAllen.

I wanted to see this threat for myself, the one that Border Patrol uses to justify their enormous systems of surveillance in the Rio Grande Valley. For years I have watched and listened to local and national news talk about how "overwhelmed" and "overworked" the agents have been in the RGV Sector. Sure, the numbers of people crossing have been high, but this was the optics the Border Patrol and Trump wanted: make hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers wait in Mexico under the hypocritically named Migrant Protection Protocols and then shut the system down under the guise of Covid pandemic regulation of Title 42 thus forcing migrants to cross irregularly and voila...they created their own immigration crisis just in time for the next presidential election in 2024.

I expected to see hundreds if not thousands of asylum seekers crossing the river in the green rafts.

All was peaceful on my visit to the Rio Grande River. (March 2023)

The images pushed out by right-wing media and the Border Patrol Union's constant beat about lines of migrants waiting on the Mexican side to cross in between the ports of entry, then "hordes" of migrant families released onto the streets of McAllen to stir up racist resentment, Border Patrol on every corner, ranchers and farmers complaining about the traffic on their farms, dangerous pursuits on city streets and trash littering the trails leading from the river's embankments...I found little of that.

It would seem the majority of migrant traffic has disappeared. In my five days in McAllen, I saw four migrants released from custody to await their hearings after they passed their

Found next to the "We Build the Wall" in a trash bag left by agents. (March 2023)

inspections. The only other time I saw migrants was when I visited them in Matamoros, Mexico. Days and nights of touring the river and driving along the border and not a single sighting of migrants or the signs that they had recently passed through the area. Yes, I did witness the rafts that had been left behind from months prior covered in mud and vegetation. I did find some clothing left behind after Border Patrol had searched and thrown most of their belongings including a child's clothing and medicine on the ground. Trash left by agents litters much of the areas. Yes, some are still crossing here though most have moved further west.

While touring the river, I was surprised at how beautiful the Mexican side of the river is versus the U.S. There are a handful of parks and recreation centers for families to enjoy, restaurants and some private homes on the south side. The American side was simply overgrown vegetation, many dilapidated houses and privately controlled slips that were poorly maintained. The videos and pictures of Republicans touring the Rio Grande in the dark left most Americans with the feeling that cartel and migrants were hiding all around them in a desolate area. Many believed that politicians like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) were actually placing themselves in danger when they disembarked their heavily armed boats and posed among the tall reeds. The truth is in the camera angle, to not show all the recreational areas on the Mexican side. The truth is that they were standing on the U.S. side with only cameras and security surrounding them.

Above: Mexico side of Rio Grande. Below: Texas side.

The Border Patrol's own statistics prove that the number of people crossing in between the ports in the RGV Sector has drastically dropped. In November of 2022, the sector reported nearly 48,000 apprehensions. In February 2023, that number was 14,965. There are always families coming to our southern border, and it is common for people to move east or west into different areas as the agency increases their patrols and surveillance. Irregular border crossings are much like the river, they ebb and flow as the seasons change, as the Migra makes them adjust their patterns and movements. Contrary to what Border Patrol claims, they do have a fairly decent control over the border in this sector.

But what is left when the traffic moves away?

Some of the agents will be redeployed in other areas that are now seeing increased crossings, and the agency will start anew bringing in their walls, guns, trucks, cameras, drones, towers that can see into everyone's properties for miles, and so-called intelligence units that can listen to American cell phone conversations without the owner's knowledge and without warrants, etc. The militarized infrastructure does not leave the communities once the crossings decrease.

For McAllen and surrounding areas that make up RGV Sector, that means that their local cops are doing more immigration duties even though the need for their assistance has subsided. It means when the Butterfly Center's employees come to work in the mornings, they are constantly stopped and asked what they are doing simply because the Center is located on the border. It means that the Border Patrol hovers their helicopters low causing foliage and debris to fly everywhere if they see that you are near the border. Perhaps you are bird watching, perhaps you are just visiting a friend when they pull you over and question you at gunpoint. It means agents enter private property and question everyone about their actions. It means locals are pulled over because they "look" like a smuggler, or their car is heavy, or they looked too long at the officer as they drove by, or they didn't look at him at all. It means the Border Patrol and its assisting local and state agencies do not believe that anyone within 25 miles of that border has the constitutional right to be protected against search and seizure. It means if you are Black or Brown, you get stopped and questioned regularly. It means local and state agencies have subsumed Border Patrol's lenient reasonable suspicion requirements to stop anyone and everyone and no longer need probable cause.

On the second day of my trip, Border Patrol agents and media set up outside the Butterfly Center and then marched a group out to the road. After ordering them to sit and place their belongings into clear bags, the cameraman held his camera low and in the faces of the asylum seekers. I witnessed how right-wing media sits around the docks on the river and works with RGV's union leaders to create scenes for their bosses to then sell to various outlets. The pictures the media spread about the migrants under the Anzalduas Bridge a few years ago, the pictures that went viral and made it look like migrants were "invading" desolate Texas farm lands failed to show the nearby schools, homes and bars. Something those pictures didn't show: El Vaqueros bar sits within walking distance. A favorite of Border Patrol agents, they could be found after shift celebrating their coup with sympathies media by singing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless America" loudly so that their prisoners under the bridge could hear their taunts. Agents detained asylum seeking families under the bridge allowing for the media to get their photos, allowing the media to present asylum seekers as "invading" the U.S. and when shift was over, they could walk next door and have a few beers.

It's all about the optics, and when mainstream media refuses to cover these events themselves, they are forced to use the film and pictures created by the Border Patrol, the Border Patrol Union and their minions in right-wing media. This is how Border Patrol propaganda works.

Anzalduas Bridge in March of 2023 wide shot.

What is left behind after all of the propaganda and biased media are gone is a huge surveillance infrastructure that can watch, listen and record citizens' comings and goings without warrants or probable cause. What is left is a large para-military force aligned with local and state law enforcement who are more than happy to utilize that surveillance that comes with little if any oversight.

The goal of the Border Patrol is to take a sector with many irregular crossings, enlist sympathetic media like Fox News and others in obtaining video and pictures of migrants crossing, create outside holding facilities so that the media can further their narrative, use that coverage to justify the installation of massive surveillance that has zero oversight, request assistance from local and state authorities in immigration violations and then leave that surveillance and those assisting agencies in place to monitor Americans thereafter.

"I cannot go down the street to the grocery store without Border Patrol pulling me over and demanding to know what I am doing," she said quietly as if we were being listened to. "I was warned to not speak poorly about all the surveillance or I would lose my job," another said. "Every time we have children visiting the property, Border Patrol sends helicopters to scare them by flying low and making it dangerous as debris flies everywhere." "I am afraid to speak openly about the abuse going on down here," many said. "Are they listening to us?" she asked.

"Border Patrol has been secretly listening to border residents cell phone calls without warrants the 1980s. In my day, in analog cell phone times, we used scanners from Radio Shack to listen to cell phones without warrants. These units were called 'Gremlin Units.' Today, those listening devices are more sophisticated an hidden within the surveillance towers and other listening devices used by Border Patrol intelligence units. There is no oversight," I replied.

Residents taped paper over the large windows so that Border Patrol could not see into the building where I was speaking. Attendance was by invitation only. No press was allowed so that people could speak openly even if it was at a whisper. Halfway through the discussion, we were notified that the building was surrounded by at least five Border Patrol, TX DPS and local cop vehicles wondering why there were so many cars in the parking lot late in the evening. Odds are that they already had our license plates and were running records checks.

My last day, I went to morning mass at La Lomita, an extremely small historic Catholic Church

Father Roy and I up to good trouble.

right on the border. As Father Roy prepared to give Communion, I heard a buzzing sound outside. I exited the building and looked up to see a small Border Patrol drone watching me. It hovered no more than twenty feet above watching as worshippers filed out and then followed them to their cars as they left. I offered a bras d'honneur or Italian salute to the drone operator to express my disgust. Father Roy said that agents are often in the parking lot. Sometimes they prevent parishioners from leaving until they are satisfied that all those with Brown or Black skin have their proper papers to pray on this side of the river.

In my five days, I walked, drove and boated everywhere on the RGV border. I visited all the different variations of the walls built by presidents from both parties and even the "We Build the Wall" scam which will fall into the river soon enough. I drove past law enforcement of every type. None pulled me over. None questioned why I was standing so close to the river. None asked what I was doing in the area or why I would walk from one side of the wall to the other.

"That is a sundown town," my father used to warn me as we drove around north Alabama when I was young. "That means that if you are Black or Brown, you best be out of town or inside when the sun goes down lest the cops who were Klan get you," he said.


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