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Fear And Calm: Rio Grande Valley Residents React To Border Troops

Donna, TX is the site of a military encampment for troops supporting the Border Patrol. 11/10/18
Carson Frame
Texas Public Radio
Donna, TX is the site of a military encampment for troops supporting the Border Patrol.

Signs of a troop presence in the Rio Grande Valley are not hard to find, especially near ports of entry.

The Pentagon said 2,800 troops have deployed to Texas as part of a total force of at least 5,200 that President Trump ordered to the southern border in late October in response to a caravan of migrants headed north from Central America.

The Donna Rio Bravo International Bridge spans the border between Donna, Texas, and Río Bravo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. In a field adjacent to the bridge, troops built what appeared to be an encampment. Rows of square green tents, several shipping containers and an unfinished steel frame structure were visible from the road.

Uniformed military personnel stood watch behind a razor wire barrier. Sand-colored military vehicles and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol trucks rumbled in and out at regular intervals.

Credit Scott Nicol / Sierra Club Borderlands Team
Concertina wire as seen from the top of the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge.

About 20 miles to the west, people crossing at the McAllen-Hidalgo port of entry noticed concertina wire on the riverbank and strung up on the international bridge. Active duty troops set it up toward the end of October. Some locals, like Eba Altubarz, saw them conducting drills in the area of the bridge.

"They’ve been doing simulations,” said Altubarz, speaking through an interpreter. “They get formed up, lined up, and they're going through the drills. But I don't know exactly what they're doing, as far as exercises are concerned."

Altubarz, a Mexican citizen, lives directly across the bridge in Reynosa. She crosses once or twice a week to go shopping. With the growing number of migrants waiting to cross the border, coupled with the troops’ arrival, Altubarz said she’s concerned about the possibility of conflict.

"I'm really worried, so I'm watching TV to see what's going on,” she said. “... The violence — I'm worried about violence.”

But Roberto Ruiz, another Reynosa resident, said he views the troops as a stabilizing presence.

Credit Carson Frame | Texas Public Radio
Shoppers peruse a strip of stores near the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge.

“I think it’s good because we have a lot of people coming from Central America — and a lot of people that come with gangs,” he said. "We have problems with them. There's going to be problems in Mexico.”

In neighboring Texas towns like Weslaco, some Americans also welcomed the troops, who they’ve noticed on the roads, at the local airport and on TV.

Thelma Anciso has children in the military, and she said she felt calmer knowing that active-duty soldiers patrolled the ports.

"They're protecting us. It feels good. I feel secure with them here. I pray for them every day,” she said.

According to Mike Seifert of the ACLU, who lives in Brownsville, many border residents assume the troops are there because of a pressing threat — one which, he said, doesn’t really exist.

“Where there’s smoke, there's got to be fire,” he said.

Seifert said some of his fellow activists conducted a survey in the Texas border town of Edinburg.

“Essentially the question was: 'Do you feel safe?' And the response a lot of the time was, 'No.' 'And why is that? Have you been witness to or a victim of a crime?’ And they were like 'No, no, no,’ “ he said. “But we see so many troops and police and border patrol, something must be going on.’"

 Concertina wire runs along the riverbank under the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge.
Credit Scott Nicol / Sierra Club Borderlands Team
Sierra Club Borderlands Team
Concertina wire runs along the riverbank under the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge.

A handful of activist groups in McAllen protested what they called the “militarization of the border.” Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, said the deployment is a political stunt designed to whip up fear.

“You have helicopter landings. You have troops in riot gear marching across the bridge. That's all being done, I think, for show,” he said. “They have an audience of one in the White House who has said that he thinks the concertina wire looks beautiful. Honestly, I think that this whole deployment is a fairly despicable show.”

Pentagon officials have said the active-duty troops will work to support Border Patrol with planning, engineering, transportation and medical teams, and that they will not have direct contact with migrants crossing the border.

Five public affairs units have also been deployed to distribute photos and video.

Carson Frame can be reached at carson@tpr.org or on Twitter@carson_frame

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.