Troop de­ploy­ment cre­ates tense at­mos­phere on US bor­der

The Progress-Index Weekend - - OBITUARIES - By Nomaan Mer­chant

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — As the first ac­tive-duty mil­i­tary troops sent to the U.S. bor­der with Mex­ico in­stalled coils of ra­zor wire on a bridge and a river­bank Fri­day, a sense of un­ease spread across Texas’ Rio Grande Val­ley.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s por­trayal of a bor­der un­der siege by drug smug­glers and other crim­i­nals is at odds with what res­i­dents in towns along the 1,954mile (3,126-kilo­me­ter) di­vide with Mex­ico see in their daily rou­tines, with U.S. bor­der towns con­sis­tently rank­ing among the safest in the coun­try.

Some Val­ley res­i­dents ques­tion the need for a large mil­i­tary pres­ence and fear it will tar­nish the area’s im­age. And some are afraid of vi­o­lence if and when the car­a­van of Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants that the troops have been sent to con­front reaches the U.S. bor­der.

While the south­ern tip of Texas is the busiest cor­ri­dor for il­le­gal cross­ings, bor­der agents make many ar­rests far from pub­lic view, on un­in­hab­ited banks of the Rio Grande and on nearby dirt paths and roads lined by thick brush.

“I feel safer here than when I go up to big­ger cities,” life­long Rio Grande Val­ley res­i­dent Em­manuel Tor­res said Fri­day while work­ing at a cof­fee shop in Brownsville, the re­gion’s largest city, with about 200,000 peo­ple.

Tor­res, 19, said the area feels “a lot like fam­ily,” and he wor­ries the mil­i­tary pres­ence will fuel out­siders’ per­cep­tions of a dys­func­tional bor­der.

“Peo­ple that don’t live here are just go­ing to cre­ate a big­ger neg­a­tive im­age,” Tor­res said.

When Trump pledged this week to send up to 15,000 troops to the bor­der in re­sponse to the slow-mov­ing car­a­van of mi­grants, he un­nerved the eco­nom­i­cally strug­gling re­gion of 1 mil­lion peo­ple that stretches over flat, sun-drenched citrus groves and farms of cot­ton, sugar cane and veg­eta­bles.

The Pen­tagon said more than 3,500 troops have been de­ployed to stag­ing bases along the bor­der, in­clud­ing about 1,000 Marines in Cal­i­for­nia. Still, there were only about 100 troops at the bor­der on Fri­day, work­ing at and near a bridge lead­ing to McAllen, Texas, the Rio Grande Val­ley’s sec­ond­biggest city, with about 140,000 peo­ple.

More than a dozen mil­i­tary mem­bers in fa­tigues were at the north­ern bank of the river, be­low the bridge, lay­ing con­certina wire. Other sol­diers erected wire bar­ri­ers on the bridge’s pedes­trian paths.

The largest car­a­van trav­el­ing through Mex­ico is still weeks away from the U.S. bor­der, and mi­grants have given no in­di­ca­tion where they might cross. The Rio Grande Val­ley is the short­est route from Cen­tral Amer­ica but also one of the most dan­ger­ous.

The troops are be­ing sent in what has been de­scribed as a sup­port role, help­ing bor­der agents. But Trump said he told the mil­i­tary that if troops face rock­throw­ing mi­grants, they should re­act as though the rocks were ri­fles.

“It’s all prepa­ra­tion in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the car­a­van,” said Manuel Padilla Jr., the Bor­der Pa­trol’s Rio Grande Val­ley sec­tor chief.

“We’re hop­ing that these peo­ple do not show up at the bor­der. They’re not go­ing to be al­lowed in.”

Con­chita Padilla, a vol­un­teer at the Brownsville Mu­seum of Fine Art, said she be­lieves the U.S. has the right to de­fend its bor­ders. But she also said she is fright­ened by the troops be­cause she doesn’t know what they will do or how they will re­act to the car­a­van.

“My worry is that if they fight each other, there might be in­no­cent peo­ple in the way that are suf­fer­ing con­se­quences,” said Padilla, 66. “We are just pray­ing that they go in peace.”

Ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by The As­so­ci­ated Press of FBI statistics, nine U.S. cities along the Mex­i­can bor­der had a vi­o­lent crime rate of nearly 346 of­fenses per 100,000 res­i­dents in 2017.

That’s lower than the na­tional rate of al­most 383. In Brownsville, it was 257, in McAllen, 144.

Those same nine bor­der towns and cities also had a prop­erty crime rate of 2,058 of­fenses per 100,000 in­hab­i­tants. Na­tion­wide, the es­ti­mated rate was just over 2,362 per 100,000.

“It’s al­most shock­ing, but it’s true,” Jack Levin, di­rec­tor of North­east­ern Univer­sity’s Brud­nick Cen­ter on Vi­o­lence. “The num­bers don’t lie.”

[AP PHOTO/ERIC GAY]

Mem­bers of the U.S.mil­i­tary place ra­zor wire along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der on the McAllen-Hi­dalgo In­ter­na­tional Bridge on Fri­day in McAllen, Texas.

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