News Clips from the 1989 "Other than Mexican" Crisis in the Rio Grande Valley

By Jerry Kammer on July 24, 2014

Twenty-five years ago South Texas experienced a similar, albeit much smaller, surge of illegal immigration from Central America, mainly Nicaraguans fleeing civil war. Here are excerpts from some of the news coverage:

"Central American Influx into Rio Grande Valley"
Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 26, 1988

Central Americans, the majority Nicaraguan, are spilling into the Rio Grande Valley at the rate of 1,500 to 2,000 a week. That's up from 300 a week last spring. That count is only of those who go to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) voluntarily. ... Many arrive expecting a friendly reception and swift passage to Florida, California, or wherever relatives and friends await them. Until a few days ago, they got it. They would apply in Texas for political asylum. The application would serve as a travel permit. They could move on and their cases would be handled where they settled. No longer. The INS has moved extra interviewers to Harlingen, Texas, and says it will process all pleas for asylum in the valley. Refugees are promised a hearing 30 days after the first interview and are strongly encouraged to stay in the valley until the case has been decided.

"Feds Test for 'Well-Founded Fear"
Newsday, March 1, 1989

The government wants to make sure that Nicaraguans and others applying for political asylum are bona fide refugees fleeing a "well-founded fear of persecution" – not mere economic migrants in search of a better life. That might seem fair. After all, refugees are properly accorded special treatment under the law. Everybody else seeking entry must stand in line.

Until last week, though, Central Americans seeking political asylum were allowed to move on to cities like New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. They could work or travel until their cases were heard, often months later. Now a ruling is supposed to be made on the spot and within one day. Those who are disqualified will be arrested immediately and held for deportation unless they leave voluntarily. Those who pursue appeals can be detained for months or years. Immigration Commissioner Alan Nelson says this policy is designed to send a signal to those people who would abuse the system.

"Extra Agents Reduced in Border Crackdown"
Associated Press, May 7, 1989

A sharp drop in the number of Central Americans trying to enter the United States has prompted the Border Patrol to scale back extra forces detailed to the South Texas border, immigration officials say. Immigration officials say the reduced numbers suggest that get-tough policies are discouraging Central Americans from coming here to file frivolous applications for asylum. Central Americans detained in South Texas have fallen to 50 or 60 a day, from 200 to 250 a day in early March, E. J. Vickery, assistant chief of the Border Patrol's McAllen Sector, said Thursday. From January to March, the unit added 192 agents to try to halt a flood of people entering the country illegally. Most of the extra agents patrolled in the Brownsville, Texas, area, the closest border crossing point to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and they began detaining nearly all of those caught, rather than releasing most to await action on their cases. When they were released, Mr. Vickery said, they "traveled north never to be heard from again." Now, he said, word of a crackdown has reached Central America, and as a result the number of extra agents has been cut to 102 and may be reduced further.

"U.S. Reassigns Texas Agents, Calling Border Push a Success"
The New York Times, May 27, 1989

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has begun to reassign the extra border patrol agents who were sent to Brownsville, Texas, in February to stem a surge of illegal aliens. James L. Buck, deputy administrator of the immigration agency, traveled to that border city Thursday to announce the shift. He called the operation a success, saying the number of illegal aliens requesting political asylum had dropped dramatically since it went into effect.

Advocates for illegal aliens disagreed with Mr. Buck's assessment, saying that the plan has not stopped refugees from crossing the border. In February and March, Mr. Buck said, there were 2,400 refugees in an agency detention camp in Port Isabel, Texas, 25 miles north of Brownsville. Today, he said, there are 1,400. "We sent a message that you can't come across our borders at will," he said in a telephone interview today.

Responding to Mr. Buck's announcement, Jonathan Moore, a spokesman for Proyecto Libertad, which provides legal counseling to refugees, said, "It's a public relations victory." Although the number of detainees has dropped since March, Mr. Moore said, it is still at one of the highest levels in nine years. He said his group had been informed by refugee groups in other parts of the country that while the number of applications for political asylum had decreased, the number of people entering the country illegally had remained constant.

"If the goal is to prevent Central Americans from coming to the U.S., it's a failure," he said. "It's been a success only if you feel that deterring Central Americans from applying for asylum is a success."