Race to cruelty at US-Mexico border

The body of a dead migrant lay alongside the newly erected 1000-foot floating barrier in the Rio Grande River, according to U.S. border crossing officials. The river which forms part of the Mexico and the United States border is the last stop for asylum seekers on their journey to America. In an effort to prevent illegal border crossings, Texas Governor Greg Abbot launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021. It’s a barrier of waterborne buoys and razor wire designed to keep migrants from setting foot on U.S. soil.

In May, Abbott issued a disaster declaration and sent National Guard troops to the border. In November 2021, he sent 10,000 guardsmen to the border in Del Rio. Two state agencies, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department are in charge of Operation Lone Star.

Next, President Biden’s government sued Texas for breach of federal law. The Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 bars the “creation of any obstruction not affirmatively authorized by Congress, to the navigable capacity of any of the waters of the United States.” In addition, Abbott did not have a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the barrier in the Rio Grande, as required by federal law.

A border of barbed wire and buoys

Near the small border city of Eagle Pass, a two and half hour drive from San Antonio, sits a floating wall of buoys, four feet in diameter, and one foot underwater. Barbed razor wire rolled out all along the bank creates an unsurmountable barrier. When the river’s water level rises, it submerges the razor wire under the water’s surface, making it perilous for anyone attempting a crossing. Behind the razor wire stand national guard soldiers, keeping watch.

At an August 4th Ethnic Media Services briefing, Manuel Escámez Escámez, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, reported from what he called a militarized war zone in Eagle Pass, with helicopters flying overhead and military vehicles along the road.

Migrants are advised by their donkers or smugglers to cross the Rio Grande River in the afternoon when temperatures are 100-150 degrees and fewer border patrols.

Crossing the river is fraught with danger for exhausted migrants. The Rio Grande measures 60 feet at its deepest point and about 6 to 20 feet at its shallowest. Migrants step into the unfamiliar water believing the water level is low, but dangerous currents and the buoys push them towards the deeper side of the river, wrote a trooper.

An expensive crossing

Since Operation Lone Star launched, donkers have increased their charges. The price per crossing is up from $500 to $1500 per person. The cost charged depends on the nationality of the migrant, said Escámez, with Chinese and Indian migrants paying the highest prices while Haitians pay the lowest. Churches serve as shelters, which are few and far between. Despite these dangers, the migrants continue to cross the border at this point.

“Cartels control the crossing at all other points of the border. They are more dangerous than the Rio Grande,” says Amit Kumar, who crossed the U.S. border eight months ago, recounting his story in Undocumented And Abandoned. The Story Of The Punjabi Farmworker. His experience reflects that of other migrants making that perilous journey. “At Rio Grande, the local authorities themselves are in a nexus with the smugglers,” said Escámez

The migrants have little visibility into what awaits them, added Escámez. America is a magnet that draws them. “They believe once they make it to America everything will be solved.” Unfortunately, migrants can be deported back to Mexico where human traffickers wait like hawks to pounce on them. “They know the deportees have exhausted all their resources in their last attempt to make it to America,” said Escámez. 

No turning back

As Americans become increasingly anxious about immigration, Democrats and Republicans are responding to the border crisis in different ways. 

For Republicans, border security is a top issue. Thirteen Republican states including Florida, North Dakota, Idaho, Nebraska, Iowa, West Virginia, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Mississippi, have joined Gov. Abbott’s effort by sending their national guard and state troopers to guard the border in short-term rotations. 

Pilar Marrero is a journalist and author who has covered social and political issues of the Latino community in the U.S. for a long time.“President Biden’s Turn Back policy, like President Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper that pushed people from California into the mountains of Arizona, does not seem to deter migrants from attempting to come to the US,” she said.

Inhumane border tactics dismay border patrols

“I believe we have stepped over a line into the inhumane,” wrote paramedic and trooper Wingate, in an email to his superior Sergeant Colin Kolupski. Wingate believed in Operation Lone Star, but could not stomach the unfolding horror. The buoy barriers and miles of concertina wire along the riverbank made it more difficult for border agents to assist migrants in distress.

The Houston Chronicle reported on his letter, dated July 3, which described how troopers and National Guard members were ordered to block and push back a four-year-old girl attempting to cross the wire on June 30. She ultimately passed out “due to exhaustion” as afternoon temperatures soared.

A pregnant 19-year-old woman was found trapped in a wire across a barrel while she was having a miscarriage, he reported. 

A 15-year-old boy broke his leg as he walked through the river, “where it is unsafe to travel.”

State law enforcement denied water to migrants as temperatures soared to over 100 degrees.

A reader commenting on the article wrote, “Gandhi said, the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Obviously, he never met Abbott.”

Mexico reacted to the barrier on the Rio Grande River with diplomatic protests. “The placement of chained buoys by Texas authorities is a violation of our sovereignty,” the Mexican Foreign Ministry wrote in a statement after migrants drowned. 

Republicans block migrants with Operation Lone Star

If migrants make it across the border they can apply for asylum, but Operation Lone Star stops migrants from reaching the U.S. or even accessing the asylum process. On July 14,  Gov. Greg Abbott’s office claimed the operation led to over 390,000 apprehensions and more than 30,000 criminal arrests, with more than 28,000 felony charges reported.

Texas has spent over $5 billion so far on Operation Lone Star with another 5 billion has been allocated for the next two years.

Democrats block migrants with CBP One mobile application

The Biden administration encourages migrants to apply online for asylum before attempting to cross the border, but that process can take months.  The CBP One mobile application is the only way for land travelers to make an appointment prior to their border crossing into the United States after the Title 42 public health policy ended on May 12th.

“The app is glitchy and unreliable,” said Gianna Borroto, a Senior Litigation Attorney with the American Immigration Council who filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration on July 27.  The app stalls and freezes before final confirmation; tt says there is an update which is hard to download the update. “And these error messages are appearing to him in English,” added Borroto. The lawsuit has 18 plaintiffs. 

The lawsuit challenges the Biden administration’s policy of turning away asylum-seekers at ports of entry who do not have a CBP one appointment thereby denying them access to the US asylum process.  

A tricky appointment system

Indians are the sixth largest group trying to cross the US-Mexico border according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data which recorded 30,113 Indian migrants in the eight months from October 2022 to May 2023. Sukhdev Singh from Punjab was one of 40 Indians who trekked through the Panama jungle to get to the border. “Only four of us reached the U.S. border,” said Singh. Through the jungle, we had one packet of bread to survive on.”

At the border, Sukhdev Dev encountered a new set of problems. When he tried make an appointment with U.S. Border Control, a “System error” message flashed onscreen. Punjabi speakers like Singh are at the mercy of the translators to decipher the CBP instructions which only appear in Spanish, English, and Haitian Creole. Singh had to plead with translators for help with his repeated unsuccessful attempts to make an appointment.  

“Appointments come available at 9 a.m. and a mad scramble ensues. By the time we got to the right page, the appointments were gone. We had to wait until the next day,” he said.

Only 1450 appointments are available each day border wide, said Borroto describing the process as an impossible situation for asylum seekers. “Many just cannot get an appointment through the app.”

Asylum seekers need up-to-date smartphones and Internet access. Living in migrant shelters and camps makes access to the Internet and Wi-Fi near impossible. “They don’t have access to electricity or water, much less the Internet,” said Borroto at the briefing. 

“Under US law, asylum-seekers at ports of entry have a right to seek protection without artificial caps or technological barriers,” the lawsuit argues. 

No data, electricity or tech support

Singh lacked reliable electricity to charge his phone. And one time, At another time he was at a border city when the app’s geolocation told him he was not close enough to the border to get an appointment, which he had been chasing for months. The cost of getting data also is prohibitive for asylum-seekers. Singh had to make the impossible choice of eating or paying for data so he could operate the CBP One app. 

The CBP One mobile application requires an individual to take a live photo of themselves each time they access the application for security. “Many migrants cannot afford an up-to-date phone that can support an app that takes up a lot of space, and performs all the functions that the app requires, like a camera,” said Borroto. She pointed out that it was commonplace for asylum-seekers to be robbed of their phones, money, and possessions along their journey. 

A waitlist system

Despite all these issues, CBP One has no tech support, offering just an email address from which migrants and their attorneys have never received a response, said Borroto. 

It leaves thousands of migrants with little recourse as they wait for an opportunity to enter the U.S. In a last-ditch attempt, many throw themselves into the river that the Mexicans know as Río Bravo or Río Bravo del Norte.

Borroto said the lawsuit was filed, “to protect the fundamental right to seek asylum which is enshrined in both US and international law. The Biden administration has created this waitlist system. Exclusive use of the CBT One app is a cruel measure to keep our southern border closed to the most vulnerable asylum seekers and restrict access to only people who can access a glitchy smartphone app and poses unfair and insurmountable barriers to poor asylum-seekers. It favors entry to people who have both economic means to afford a functioning smartphone and Internet access and also the tech and language skills necessary to navigate the app.”

The aftermath of Title 42

Title 42 served as a safe harbor for migrants during the pandemic because they did not face legal consequences for failed immigration attempts. Now, under Title 8, migrants face being banned from the U.S. for five years and criminal proceedings if they are caught entering illegally.

Authorities panicked after Title 42 ended, expecting the floodgates to open, said lawyer Jay Terkiana. “The Biden administration feared they would not be able to process the flood of applications while the Republicans feared that criminal and drug elements would enter the country.” What ensued were attempts to curtail mass migration like the CBP One app, and transit ban laws which state that asylum seekers who travel through a third country on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border will be presumed ineligible for asylum.

However, the expected flood has not come to pass, ” said Terkiana.”There is actually a smaller number of migrants at the border – around 4500 every day as opposed to 6000 before Title 42 came into play. ” 

Under Title 8 migrants can be deported,” he warned. “Most migrants will become ineligible for asylum if they enter without permission or if they have a prior record of deportation,” warned Terkiana. 

Texas defends Operation Lone Star

Gov. Abbott of Texas defended Operation  Lone Star in a letter to the Biden administration, stating that “America is suffering the highest volume of illegal immigration in the history of our country. This past year, more than 2 million immigrants tried to enter the country illegally, coming from more than 100 countries across the globe.”

He pointed out that the Constitution grants Texas sovereign authority to protect its borders.“The fact is, if you would just enforce the immigration laws Congress already has on the books, America would not be suffering from your record-breaking level of illegal immigration.” He went on to state that Texas invokes the powers reserved in Article I, § 10, Clause 3, which represents “an acknowledgment of the States’ sovereign interest in protecting their borders.”

“Texas will see you in court, Mr. President,” he wrote.

Migrants caught in 2024 election crossfire

“The posting of troops may be put down to flexing in the election year,” says Terkiana, commenting on border control tactics by both parties.

Andrea Reyes, an immigration lawyer born in Colombia and raised in the U.S., said that Presidents couldn’t resolve the broken immigration system. “It is never going to be enough. All they’re doing is putting a band-aid on an open wound. Our constitution does not allow for it. Only Congress can create the laws to fix these problems.” 

“When you go to vote for the President, you should know that the President cannot fix the immigration system,” she said to New Yorker magazine.

In the meanwhile, desperation continues to drive migrants across the border. A second body was discovered upstream, about three miles away from where the first body was found.

Ritu Marwah reported on people who are undocumented while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism ‘s 2023 California Health Equity Impact Fund.

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Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author ✍️ and a recognized Bay Area leader in the field of 🏛 art and literature. She won the 2023 Ethnic Media Services award for outstanding international reporting;...