In the middle of May, just before the end of the school year, a mother drove to a local grammar school in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, an area that sits along the U.S.-Mexico border, to pick up her three children. As she was parking her truck, a Brownsville police officer, apparently doing traffic duty, asked her for her papers.
The woman, having suffered an onslaught of news reports about SB 4, the Texas “Show Me Your Papers” immigration law, told me she thought that he meant her immigration documents. The policeman was only asking about her driver’s license and proof of insurance.
The woman, shaken, went into the school office to collect her children.
The mother ran into the school secretary. As is the case in many communities, the secretary is considered a reliable source of knowledge. This mom, afraid, pleaded her case. “But the police have no right to ask me for my papers; they have no right to do that on school property! Who can I complain to?”
The secretary responded, “Ah, but you see, with that new law, SB 4, everything has changed. The police can come into the school any time they want and they can take illegal people away. You should be glad that he didn’t deport you. But he will be back!”
The mother of three gasped. The secretary went back to answering phones and attending other parents’ needs. The mother went home and called her local parish. The priest calmed her fears, reminding her that she had the support of her church and of many others.
“I am not sure what exactly we will do as a parish,” the priest told me, “But we will come up with something.”
On May 7, 2017, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott went live on Facebook and signed Senate Bill 4. On Sept. 1, SB 4 effectively creates federal immigration agents out of city, county, state and college police. Police department chiefs and other authorities who refuse to cooperate will be subject to criminal prosecution.
“People hunting has become the state-sponsored sport of the moment,” an older friend of mine remarked.
So it seems.
One small church has joined in the hunt early on. Just days after the governor signed SB 4, the pastor of that community took the trouble one Sunday to exhort the undocumented immigrants in his church to “pack up and leave. God wants you to follow the law!”
And so 14 families sold all that they had and self-deported. These families are mixed-status. Some are U.S. citizens. Some are undocumented residents. In one case, three American-born siblings were told that they had a week to say goodbye to their friends, that the family was moving to the mother’s native Peru.
None of those kids really knows what “Peru” means; they have never been there, and, in any case, they had been preoccupied with navigating that other unknown territory known as adolescence.
During that same week that the school mom encountered the police officer, I received a call from a fellow who works with a community health clinic. Doctors there were worrying about the number of parents missing appointments.
The patients, apparently, were afraid that they would be picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol, which likes to hang out at the taqueria across the street from the clinic.
At a different community clinic, a U.S. Border Patrol agent had taken to sitting in his patrol car during lunch in the patients’ parking lot. He may have been simply eating his sandwich; the clinic’s patients skipped their health appointments.
“You never know,” concluded one of the patient advocates who works at the clinic.
One of the best summer programs for kids in our region has lost half the participants that they had last year. The organization’s director noted the constant presence of Texas State troopers, which has committed its law enforcement agents to stopping anyone who “appears” to be an undocumented immigrant, has created all sorts of hardships for their programs.
“People are afraid,” she said.
Timothy Snyder, a scholar specializing in the history of fascist Europe, has laid out a list of the kinds of symptoms that indicated that the hearts and minds of “regular citizens” had accepted some of the rankest evils in our recent history.
These symptoms include the willingness of citizens to obey in advance, to put aside critical thought and generous sensibilities to align themselves with the new reality. In this way, perhaps unwittingly, citizens helped usher in all manner of evil.
It became acceptable to segregate Jewish people, for example, which led to the tolerance of rounding up those neighbors, and, later, to the silent cooperation in their murders.
Snyder addresses his thoughts to our entire nation, but the admonition to “not obey in advance” has a particular immediacy in the Rio Grande Valley. Our region is, after all, along the U.S.-Mexico border. In some places, it is a 10-minute drive to the bridge that connects the two countries.
A family’s fortunes can change in those 10 to 15 minutes. There is neither the time nor the legal resources for a family to establish a lawful claim of presence.
The Rio Grande Valley, like much of the southern border, has been “militarized” over the past 10 years. The Texas state government itself will have spent nearly $2 billion over four years to fill the area with state troopers, who act as surrogates for the U.S. Border Patrol.
And, of course, there is SB 4, a law that will exponentially expand the reach of the U.S. Border Patrol by adding hundreds of local police officers to their force. All of this works to create a social space that makes the abuse and exploitation of people much easier.
While there have always been individuals in our area who cheat and exploit the undocumented, the strident effort to make all immigrants criminals offers a temptation for others to either look the other way and ignore these abuses, or, sadly, engage in their own form of exploitation.
There are, on the other hand, an uncountable number of people who refuse to accept the hunting down of friends and neighbors as the New Normal. Artists and educators, physicians and activists, younger folks and older ones have spent the spring and early part of the summer organizing what is called The Resistance.
These are thoughtful, creative and courageous people who know history, refuse an easy obedience to evil and who believe in their power.
They are God-sent gifts for a difficult time.