View of the Border from the Rio Grande Valley and Del Rio

By Andrew R. Arthur on August 22, 2017

I recently returned from a tour that took me cross-country through Texas to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) and beyond. What I saw presented a slightly different view from that driving the debate on border walls and amnesties.

The border part of my trip began in Austin, more than 300 miles north of the RGV. Interstate highways led me past the city, 70 miles down the road to San Antonio toward Corpus Christi, before turning off onto U.S. 281, a desolate stretch of highway that will soon become part of Interstate 69 (I-69). This interstate will eventually run from Texas to seven other states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. The road work has already begun on vast stretches of the road, with significant improvements in some places, but years-old blacktop in others. Around McAllen, I was told that the route would likely carry citrus and other goods north into the eastern United States, but will not rival its sister interstate to the west, I-35, which helps to make Laredo America's busiest inland port.

Interestingly, tourism appears to be part of the I-69 scheme. Miles north of the first major city on the road, Edinburg, signs announce that you are in the "Texas Tropical Trail" region, and a few miles further down the road from the first signs, what appeared to be recently planted palm trees appeared in the median. Not much of the northern area of the region suggests the tropics, however, as oil and gas fields, cotton patches, and ranches (and road construction equipment) line the roadway. Improvements are few, and most of the gas stations on the side of the road are closed.

The approach into Edinburg and the RGV, however, provides a stark contrast to the immediately adjacent area to the north. A new 9,700-seat soccer stadium (H-E-B Park, home of the Rio Grande Valley Toros soccer team) appears just off in the distance, as do new malls and housing developments. The McAllen-Edinburg-Mission Metropolitan Statistical Area is now the fifth largest in the state, recently surpassing El Paso; with a population that already totaled 842,304 in July 2015, McAllen is growing twice as fast as El Paso itself. And, its population is young: at 28.4 years, the median age in McAllen is about nine years younger than the national average.

With this have come the many businesses that cater to young adults. Chain restaurants and bars line the highway (I-2), as do big-box stores. Sprinklers water the lawns of half-million-dollar houses. Two hospitals sit side-by-side facing I-2. The morning traffic is what you would expect to find in a first-tier suburb, and the area reminded me of Orange County, Calif., in the 1990s, or Arlington County, Va., in the last decade.

Vestiges of the border town still exist, however. There are trailer parks, and the muddy boots of the agricultural and construction workers who are passing through town or working on its outskirts lined the hallways of the motel where I stayed. The music at the Appleby's where I ate was all in Spanish, and on a Tuesday night, the televisions showed boxing and soccer exclusively.

So who are these residents? Some were locals, while others told me they had come to the area to work in the restaurants and businesses. Some work in the industries that support the port: shipping, storage, and warehouses. Plants employ workers who process parts that are shipped for assembly in maquiladoras in Mexico, or broken tools sent south to be refurbished.

There were suggestions, however, that other residents were there for different reasons. The cartel crime that has plagued the northern Mexican states has driven those with the status and the resources to cross the border to do so. And, it was implied, some of those cartel members had come to live in McAllen as well, safe from the danger that is a consequence of their chosen profession.

On the river, however, it is apparent that you are in a border town. Just down from the Anzalduas Dam are two parks that face each other across the river. Anzalduas Park on the U.S. side of the border sits a few hundred feet across the river from what Google Maps identifies as the Centro Cultural y Recreativo la Playita Reynosa, in an area Texas Monthly spotlighted in an October 2014 article on the surge of children and families from Central America.

When I was there, at about 11:00 AM, a handful of families were in the Mexican park, some of whom were splashing around in the green water of the river; others were holding picnics in the park. In contrast, Border Patrol boats and heavily armed Texas Highway Patrol vessels were leaving from the dock on the American side to search for drug and alien smugglers.

The boats pass large, expensive homes with pool houses on the Mexican side, as well as what would appear to be scout platforms on the southern side of the river.

While there are stands of vegetation on the Mexican side, it is nowhere near as thick (or ubiquitous) as on the American side, where carrizo cane (or Arundo) runs from the shore to yards up the riverbank for miles at a time.

As the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB) has noted:

Large dense stands of non-native carrizo cane (Arundo donax) now occupy the banks and floodplains of the Rio Grande, thwarting law enforcement efforts along the international border, impeding and concealing the detection of criminal activity, restricting law enforcement officers' access to riverbanks, and impairing the ecological function and biodiversity of the Rio Grande.

Arundo is an exceptionally fast growing plant, able to grow about 4 inches per day and reach a mature height of over 25 feet in about 12 months. These stands of invasive riparian weeds present considerable obstacles for the protection of the international border by law enforcement and agricultural inspectors, by both significantly reducing visibility within enforcement areas and by providing favorable habitat for agriculturally-damaging cattle ticks.

Once inside the cane on the American side of the river, it would be difficult to spot illegal entrants. It would be harder still to pursue them from the river, given the difficulty of running up the sandy riverside.

Although the Texas state government has directed the TSSWCB to develop a program to eradicate the cane, the cane appears to be holding on. Locals told me that eradication efforts had been hampered by environmentalists, who were concerned about the effects on native species and the environment if the weeds were to be removed. In fact, a few days after I was on the river, The Hill reported that: "House Democrats representing districts along the U.S.-Mexico border expressed alarm on Friday that the Trump administration's plans to waive certain environmental laws to build a wall could hurt wildlife."

In any event, once up the bank and into the cane, it would be easy for an entrant to access the town of Mission, and the United States, which has required a heavy Border Patrol presence in the area.

It is apparent that many have tried to cross: Deflated rafts appear sporadically but regularly along the U.S. side of the river, although given the slow current and narrow nature of the river, it is easily swimmable for a healthy adult.

That is not to say, however, that there are no breaks in the cane. Boat ramps appear on the American side, and just a short distance from the park are riverside bars and an RV park, as well as a sightseeing boat that the state troopers slow down for as they near it tied up on the dock.

Eradication of the cane, and improvement of the infrastructure on the American side would give law enforcement a better opportunity to apprehend alien and drug smugglers seeking illegal entry to the United States. Border fencing, at least along the unoccupied sections of the river, would certainly be a deterrent.

In that regard, a large levee that sits along a part of the river acts as a virtual wall for a stretch. Occasional heavy rains, and releases of water from dams upstream, have made those levees a necessity. Additional levee walls could serve a double purpose, acting as both flood control and an entry deterrent.

It should be noted that the Border Patrol Agents are not alone in their efforts to stop illicit cross-river trade. The troopers on the Texas Highway Patrol boats (which according to Fox News are "outfitted with bullet-proof panels, fully automatic machine guns and 900-horsepower engines") have authority to ensure compliance with navigation laws, requirements smugglers reportedly usually fail to obey.

Other state troopers patrol the highway and side streets in the RGV, as do local police and the sheriff's department. In addition, Cortina units, composed of one Texas Department of Public Safety officer and one Border Patrol Agent, run regular patrols. Each brings his or her own law-enforcement authority to the often-uncertain conflicts and encounters that occur in the RGV.

In addition, blimps from the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, or TARS, float 10,000 feet above the area, and I spotted at least two of the TARS between Mission and Rio Grande City.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection's website: "TARS is like a low-flying satellite system, but cheaper to launch and operate." I did not ask the Border Patrol what exact capabilities the TARS possess (and likely would not have been told), but they would appear to be both radar and photographic platforms. That said, I was told that they do not operate in inclement weather, and that scouts are paid by smugglers to observe when the TARS are being lowered.

The landscape changes as you ride down U.S. 83 from McAllen to Roma. Largely absent are the chain restaurants and stores that fill the landscape to the east, replaced by any number of used-car and used-tire stores, road-side "carwashes" (consisting of a shed and a hand-held power washer open to the highway), ice-cream and candy kiosks that keep irregular hours, and small restaurants and food stands, in addition to chain gas station/convenience stores. Only a couple of miles separate the river from the highway along this stretch, much of which consists of large undeveloped properties. It is easy to imagine that any number of people in this area may serve as scouts for smuggling operations, but it would be all but impossible to know who.

The modern Border Patrol station in Rio Grande city, east of Roma, is already too small for its force.

Parking is at a premium on "Border Patrol Lane," which is also occupied by one lone, well-kept house, and I had to park on the side of the road and hope that I did not get a ticket.

During my visit, a large quantity of cocaine was discovered in a pick-up truck in the area, indicating that alien smuggling was not the only illegal activity that the Border Patrol had to deal with there.

From Rio Grande City, I went to the city of Roma. The Texas Tribune describes Roma as a "Smuggler's Paradise," and it is easy to see why. As the town's website notes: "In November 1993, the 9-square block area around Roma Plaza was designated a National Historic Landmark District, the highest designation for historic properties in the U.S." Many of the buildings, however, are largely in a state somewhere between disrepair and collapse.

A bluff at the far end of the plaza overlooks the Mexican city of Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, which is only about 200 feet across the river.

A winding path leads down the hillside to the banks of the river itself, and the trail is littered with cast-off shirts, pants, hats, and underwear from prior entrants.

A row of small houses line the bank on the American side, and an old artist washing his hands in his outdoor sink did not even look up as I passed his property, suggesting that visitors down to (and up from) the water were not uncommon.

On the Ciudad Miguel Alemán side of the river, two people sat on a bench and kept a steady watch at the far bank. Workers on the Mexican side were cutting the small stand of carrizo cane that was growing on the shore. I was told that environmental laws in Mexico do not inhibit eradication of border vegetation, and that the Mexican government cuts the cane to deny cover to smugglers.

In addition to the proximity of this city to the shore, a small island covered in thick vegetation sits in the middle of the river down from the bluff, limiting the distance for smugglers to the U.S. side of the river even more, and providing them with even more cover.

 

Interestingly, Roma attracts a fair number of tourists who go to the bluffs for bird watching. Local residents told me that any border fence or infrastructure that would be installed in this area would face opposition from these tourists.

 

On a bluff on the southeast side of town sat a U.S. military Humvee that was also keeping watch across the river, another force multiplier for the law-enforcement units there.

 

From Roma, I headed 272 miles up the river to Del Rio, in Val Verde County, which presents a different picture of the state of the border. On the way, I passed through Laredo, and saw lines of trucks that were entering the United States to head toward I-35 and onward north. I also passed through Eagle Pass, another prosperous community that has grown up along the river. A local high-school football stadium appeared to have been recently completed, of a size that one would expect to find in a Football Championship Subdivision college or university.

Del Rio itself, however, was not so prosperous. On the way into town, I passed two Border Patrol vehicles, one stationary on the westbound side, and another driving on the eastbound side. As the eastbound vehicle went around a bend, an old man wearing dirty work clothes and leading a horse on the side of the road took out his cellphone and started to make a call.

The town itself looked little improved over the last 40 years. While there were a handful of new hotels and restaurants, the main street was also lined with large glass storefronts, old-line shopping malls, and pawn shops and payday loan offices. The local restaurant where I dined, I was later told, had been opened by a cook who had immigrated from Mexico and worked locally to obtain the capital he needed to open his own restaurant. A relative who had returned to Mexico, however, had reportedly become involved with the cartels and was killed.

My host in Del Rio took me to a ranch on the outskirts of town, beyond the Amistad Reservoir, which straddles the border. The far reaches of the ranch (a 45-minute ride over approximately six miles of largely unimproved roads) overlooked the Rio Grande, where high cliff walls led down to the river on both sides. The rancher grants access to Border Patrol to arrest the few aliens who attempt entry in this largely inaccessible location. Although a boundary fence would likely not prove a greater impediment than the cliffs, additional infrastructure to identify incursions and better access roads would facilitate enforcement.

We next went to a park near where the Pecos River meets the Rio Grande. The scrubland on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande is much lower there, offering much better access to the river. In addition, the Pecos River at the confluence is largely silted in, making the river much easier to ford, and leads to a boat ramp up to the main highway.

Border Patrol keeps watch over the river in this area in airboats, which allow the boats to operate in the shallow water. The park was largely deserted when we were there, and apparently has been rarely used by the sport fishermen for whom it was planned since the river silted in. Again, infrastructure improvements would make this area more secure when the airboats are not operating. In addition, some barrier along the steep incline would provide deterrence value.

Next, we went into the neighborhood of the city that abuts the river. A 1.8-mile border fence, similar in design to the one that surrounds the White House, above an access road along the shore has significantly reduced the incursions, and crime, in the immediately adjacent area. Cross-border burglaries have reportedly occurred, however, in those sections of the town where there is no fencing.

The section of the fence that I saw ended at one end at the port of entry, and at the other end at a road that leads down to a quarry along the river. Local lore claimed that the fence itself created "millionaires", as landowners demanded payment for their plots of land.

 

Additional fencing that would provide access to the quarry trucks and additional infrastructure would likely make this area, which sits across a narrow stretch of the river, even more secure.

This is particularly true given the fact that the property sits adjacent to a residential neighborhood, into which an illegal entrant could disappear fairly quickly. While there was a sensor on the fence, there was no response from Border Patrol when we were in the area; this may, however, have resulted from the fact that my host is a well-known individual in the area.

 

In summary, there appeared to be strong cooperation between federal, state, and local officials in both the RGV and Del Rio in stemming the tide of illegal entrants and drug smuggling along the Rio Grande river. Significant resources have been employed in the most heavily trafficked areas of the river to respond to illegal entrants. The government could take additional actions to secure the border in these areas, however: new barriers could be erected where appropriate, access roads could be built or improved, and additional technology could be employed to both identify and deter illegal entries in these highly vulnerable areas. Importantly as well, the non-native carrizo cane that chokes the riverbanks on the American side of the river should be eradicated, and replaced with either a river wall or vegetation that does not provide the same cover to those avoiding the legal ports of entry.