Realities Of Life On The U.S.-Mexico Border
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington.
Arizona's tough, new immigration law continues to fix national attention on the debate over immigration. A new New York Times-CBS poll found that a wide majority of Americans feel that U.S. immigration policy needs an overhaul, and that despite the public protests condemning Arizona's approach, just over half of Americans support that law.
But while Washington and the nation debate how best to handle the policy questions, many who live and work along the U.S.-Mexico border have their own challenges and perspectives, and often feel the national debates don't reflect the realities of their lives along the border.
In a moment, we'll talk to people with two different walks of life, from border communities in Texas. And if you live near the U.S.-Mexico border, we want to hear from you. What don't we know about life in border communities? Does the national debate around immigration reflect your experience? Tell us your story.
Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the hour: As the accused Times Square car bomber appears in federal court, we'll look at the SUV full of clues that led police to his door. A former bomb squad investigator joins us.
But first, we go to Arizona. Joining me now is NPR correspondent Ted Robbins. He covers the Southwest, and he joins me now from Tucson.
Ted Robbins, thanks for being on the program.
TED ROBBINS: Good to be with you, Rebecca.
ROBERTS: Arizona's new law is called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. Supporters of it have argued that it's necessary, in part to fight crime that they say is fueled by illegal immigration. Others say Arizona's actually safer than it was 10 years ago. What sort of clarity can you shed on that issue?
ROBBINS: I wish I could shed more, to be honest with you. There - the data's really kind of cloudy. In the Phoenix area, for instance, the claims are that illegal immigrants are responsible for twice the crime rate as the general population, around 16 percent. But, you know, if you include illegal immigration as a crime, your numbers are going to be affected. So I think what most people probably care about is violent crime, and the data is really mixed.
One study by a nonpartisan research group said that immigrants, legal and illegal, were 10 times less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans, in the case that, you know, that immigrants do not raise the crime rate. On the other hand, children of some immigrant groups are much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated because they're susceptible to gang influences. And the numbers of gang members across the U.S. is up - been up sharply this last decade.
So I - you know, just to sum up here...
ROBBINS: ...I mean, you know, meanwhile, you've got highly publicized cases -like the shooting of the rancher, down near the border, in March - which tend to skew public perception.
ROBERTS: Well, that case and others, as you say, that get a lot of publicity, are drug-related. Is that - is the whole sort of debate over drug policy part of this debate?
ROBBINS: Well, you know, and - is it part of the debate? I think it is, but I think it's - it is not an explicit part of the debate.
ROBBINS: I - many in the immigrant community and, in fact, folks along the border, will separate illegal immigration from drug smuggling and the increasingly violent people-smuggling that's going on. And I think they will do that, and the general public tends to put it all together in their minds.
ROBERTS: Another point that supporters of laws like Arizona's make is that illegal immigration is overwhelming social services, that hospitals and schools can't possibly keep up with an influx of this size. What sort of data is there to support that?
ROBBINS: Well, in Arizona, you can't get social services if you are an illegal immigrant because of a law a few years ago. On the other hand, you can get public education, because schools do not ask immigration status. They cannot ask. And of course, children born here, whether their parents are legal or illegal, are citizens. Hospitals are really just beginning to ask the status. I know of one in Tucson that asks and is collecting data. Most hospitals don't, and all hospitals are required to treat folks who come into the emergency room. And they're losing money but, you know, is that because of illegal immigrants? Or is that because people don't have health care?
So there's an impact, to be sure. Advocates say it's not as great as it would be if we were to ignore public education or public health.
ROBERTS: We're obviously having this conversation in the context of the U.S. side of the border, but one of the things we've been trying to understand about this area is that, you know, Mexico's right there. What sort of perspective can you give us about the effects of this same phenomenon, the illegal immigration, from the Mexican side of the border?
ROBBINS: Yeah, I'm really glad you asked that because the border implies - the term border implies that there are two sides. For instance, all the illegal immigrants who are picked up are taken and dropped off at the border. And in this case - in the case of the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona - they're dropped off, and they have been overwhelming the other - the social services on the other side. They just cross the border, and there they are. And most of these folks are not from the north of Mexico these days. They're from the south, from Chiapas or from central Zacatecas, and they're poor. That's why they're coming. And they get dropped off. It's as though a New Yorker were dropped off in the middle of, you know, Nebraska. And you know, where do you go? And you seek out social services.
So I think that that's a very astute point, that the services are being overwhelmed on the other side.
ROBERTS: And in terms of immigrants being dropped off, as you say, just over the border, how much does that happen? How has the, sort of curve of enforcement been looking over the last couple of years?
ROBBINS: Happens every day, many times a day. Busloads of - busloads, literally busloads are dropped off, you know, almost every hour, at points all across the border. Enforcement has gone up. I mean, you've got about 20,000 Border Patrol agents here, and that's along the entire border. But you've got huge, you know, places that are in between ports of entry that don't have much enforcement still. Those are the harsher places.
ROBERTS: The places where it's harder to cross.
ROBBINS: Where it's - exactly. And they've been pushed into those areas on purpose by - away from places like San Diego, for instance. And I just want to make one point, that the government estimates - our government estimates that up to - perhaps more - but 40 to 60 percent of all of those people in this country illegally came in legally through ports of entry on visas, and they overstayed their visas. So those are not people who are climbing fences. Those are not people who are crossing through the desert. You know, many of them are, but we have to keep that in mind - that no fencing, nothing is going to keep those people out. And those could be of any nationality.
ROBERTS: Well, it's interesting, Ted Robbins, when you look at the New York Times-CBS poll. One of the things that Americans do seem to agree on, when there's not a lot of consensus around this issue, is that more needs to be done in terms of enforcing current laws. And if what you're describing - of, you know, busloads of people being deported every day - where is the disconnect? Is it in a lack of information? Is it that enforcement seems like a nice thing to rally behind?
ROBBINS: It would be tough. You've got people who are in here - let's take the 40 to 60 percent who are here on visa overstays. Nobody knows where those people are. I mean, the federal immigration authorities couldn't find them, I suspect, if they wanted to because in this country, you don't register with the police when you enter the country, as you do in some countries. And they're - so far, there wasn't - there is a program for exit tracking, so we know when people leave. Then we would at least know, you know, that they were still here. That hasn't been implemented. That was supposed to be implemented -I think, at this point, three to five years ago, and it hasn't been implemented yet.
So you'd have to have a lot more agents knocking on a lot more doors if you were actually going to try to pull people out of the shadows.
ROBERTS: So where do the estimates come from in terms of how many people are actually crossing the border illegally?
ROBBINS: Actually crossing the border illegally, meaning through the desert, for instance? They come from the Border Patrol, and the Border Patrol uses a figure called apprehensions, which is not discrete individuals. That's, you know - one person could be caught 10 times, and that would be 10 apprehensions.
And apprehensions have dropped, absolutely, and most people agree that it's the economy that has caused that to happen, that the number of people trying to cross is down. And the number of people migrating - going back and forth, which used to be pretty common - that's dropped. So that people who are already in this country illegally are staying and not - say, returning to, for instance, Mexico for the holidays and then coming back because it's so difficult now.
ROBERTS: Ted Robbins is an NPR national correspondent. He joined me today from Tucson, Arizona. Thank you so much.
ROBBINS: Oh, my pleasure.
ROBERTS: Joining me now on the line is Monica Weisberg-Stewart. She owns Gilberto's Discount House, which is a retail shop in McAllen, Texas. She also chairs the immigration and border security committee for the Texas Border Coalition, which is a group of business organizations and municipal leaders from Texas towns and cities on the Mexico border. Today, she joins me by phone from Rochester, Minnesota, but thanks for being here on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. MONICA WEISBERG-STEWART (Owner, Gilberto's Discount House; Chair, Immigration and Border Security Committee, Texas Border Coalition): Thank you for having me.
ROBERTS: I understand your business in McAllen, which is only a few miles from the Mexico border, has traditionally relied pretty heavily on Mexican shoppers.
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Well, actually, the business on the border as a whole relies on Mexico and the United States, and 60 percent of my business relies on the Mexicans coming over and shopping at my store.
You know, there's an old saying that goes that if the United States has a problem - or has a cold, sneezes, we have a cold. But if the Mexican government has a problem, we have pneumonia. And you know, that kind of describes it, where the border area depends on both economics in order to make things work.
ROBERTS: What sorts of things do you sell?
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: I sell everywhere - from Christmas trees to lingerie to gift items, discount merchandise.
ROBERTS: So why do you think your business has dropped off from the Mexican side?
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Well, because people right now are afraid to leave their homes in Mexico and travel to the ports of entry, and then the long waits at the ports of entry in order to enter into the country.
And let me make sure, we're talking about legitimate trade and travel. We're not talking about the illegal side of it. We're talking about the legal side of it.
ROBERTS: Why are they afraid?
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Well, because of what's happening on the Mexican side, which is actually a misconception that that is happening on the American side.
ROBERTS: You mean in terms of violence?
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: In terms of violence.
ROBERTS: Can you describe - I mean, have you heard, for instance, stories from some of your customers who say what it is that they're afraid of?
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Sure, absolutely. I mean, I'm sure that everybody sees, you know, the newspapers and stuff like that. There's - right now - drug-related violence between the gangs, between, you know, the gangs happening on the Mexican side of the border. And they're trying to find out which gang is going to actually take the territories. They're fighting over territories right now on the opposite side.
They have certain gun battles happening on the border right now, but the misconception that is happening is that that's happening on the American side -which is totally false. On the American side, if we look at it like El Paso and Juarez, you'll see Juarez is probably one of the most unsafe border towns right now, where El Paso -
ROBERTS: We have to take a quick break. More in a minute. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. In Washington, immigration tends to be an abstract debate about policy. In Arizona and Texas and California, the conversations are often very different.
If you live near the U.S.-Mexico border, what don't we know about life in border communities? Does the national debate around immigration reflect your own experience? Our number here is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We're talking with Monica Weisberg-Stewart. She owns Gilberto's Discount House in McAllen, Texas, and chairs the Immigration and Border Security Committee for the Texas Border Coalition.
So we were talking about the fear that is keeping some of your Mexican customers at home. Does the Texas Border Coalition - what sorts of things are you all trying to do to address this drop-off in trade?
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Well, part of it, that we are trying to do right now, is the facilitation of legitimate trade and travel. The General Accounting Office has stated that we are 5,000 manpower short at our ports of entry, and $6 billion short at our ports of entry.
We are also 70 percent secured between the ports, and only 30 percent secured at the ports. We need more manpower and more resources directed at our ports of entry immediately. That would also lessen the wait times at our ports of entry.
We're short-handed at the ports. Border Patrol and Customs are two different agencies. We need to address that. And, you know, when we look at economics, the economics speak for themselves. Empirical data will tell you straight out, in the year 2000, we had over 290 million customers coming over from Mexico into the United States. In the year 2008, that number dropped to 206 million, which is a 30 percent drop of legitimate travelers coming into our country to spend their money.
The hard part is that a lot of our departments are based off of user fees and you know, that derives a lot of the stuff - so security cost, and that cost comes from user fees, which we need to be able to account for. So at this point, in order to help those shoppers come over, we would like to be able to facilitate the ones that are coming.
Mexican nationals used to come over maybe four to five times during the season to do their shopping, and we're trying to get them to come over at least one or two times, which - some of them are just staying at home right now. You know, our wait times at our ports, even despite the decrease of people coming over, is ridiculous. We need to get that up to par to be able to facilitate it and also secure us at the same time.
ROBERTS: We have an email from Felipe(ph) in Tucson, who says: Every year, 22 million legal visitors from Mexico make a strong impact on our economy. In Tucson, visitors from Mexico spend close to a billion dollars a year. Our economy is tied to the one in Mexico, and we have created a program called Vamos A Tucson, with offices in Mexico, to better serve the Mexico visitor. We hope that federal and state laws will help us bring more tourists rather than scare them away in the U.S.
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Absolutely.
ROBERTS: Is there a similar program in Texas?
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Yeah, there's similar programs, and we do, we actually bring a lot of people over. But as long as right now, until the drug violence is over on the in Mexico right now, the Mexicans are still afraid to leave their homes to be able to cross the border.
And you know, our trade depends on both sides. Americans, a lot of time, go to Mexico for health care, for their medications, for actually eating, for shopping and everything else. And so right now, that trade takes place in two ways. We're inter-related, and that's real important.
ROBERTS: And does the drop-off affect McAllen? Does it feel like a quieter town?
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Actually, it doesn't sound like a quieter town. I mean, McAllen, our life goes on just like normal. I mean, I my kids go to school like normal, and our lives on the American side of the border is normal. Nothing has changed. The difference is that you see some of the economic downturns in some of the businesses, and you'll see some stores going out and some going in.
In my business, personally, I've downsized. We've been in business for over 55 years and what I've done is, I've actually leased out part of my property and actually downsized my business because I believe I can do the same amount in less amount of square footage.
You see, business like in any business, if your business is down a certain percentage, you're going to do whatever you need to do to change that business out in order to keep business coming in.
ROBERTS: Monica Weisberg-Stewart is the owner of Gilberto's Discount House in McAllen, Texas, and the chair of the immigration and border security committee for the Texas Border Coalition. She joined today by phone from Rochester, Minnesota. Thank you so much.
Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Thank you for having me.
We turn now to another Texas border town. Carlos Flores teaches English at Laredo Community College in Laredo, Texas. He's also the author of "Our House on Hueco," a novel about tensions between an Anglo and Latino family in a Texas border community. He joins me now from his office in Laredo. Welcome to the program.
Mr. CARLOS FLORES (English Professor, Laredo Community College; Author, "Our House on Hueco"): Thank you, Rebecca, glad to be on it.
ROBERTS: We've heard charges - or suggestions - that immigration has put a strain on social services on the American side of the border. You teach at a community college. What sort of effects are you seeing?
Mr. FLORES: Well, definitely we are seeing an increase, for example, in enrollments. I know that some of my students in the past have been here illegally, but I know that we, as a result of this immigration, that our schools are overwhelmed. The this immigration has certainly contributed to our region's low literacy rate, certainly in English.
I do know, also, that on the other hand, I mean, there are many efforts to try to deal with this issue. For example, very recently, as I don't know if you know anything about this, but there's been efforts to establish a dual-language program in Laredo in order to improve the, you know, the transition that students are making, you know, linguistically in their education.
ROBERTS: But at the same time, there's, you know, there's rhetoric that immigrants are unwilling to learn English, that they stay in communities where everybody speaks Spanish. What's your perspective on that as an English instructor?
Mr. FLORES: Look, my perspective on that is simply this: I think Mexican-Americans, you know, want to be successful - or rather, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans definitely want to be successful. I think that what impresses me most, has always impressed me most about the population in Laredo, Texas, has been that, you know, people can be extremely proficient in both English and Spanish.
My concern has been that this opportunity to, you know, to develop this more cosmopolitan, international type of culture has really not been exploited enough. I think that one of the things, for example, that some Mexicans have told me about, that they love about the United States, that they value, is the rule by, is the rule of law. And you'd be impressed at least, I have been rather impressed, despite the fact that many of our students are, let's say, underprepared for college-level work, I continue to be impressed by the level of proficiency in English.
ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Ferdinand(ph) in San Antonio, Texas. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
FERDINAND (Caller): How do you do?
ROBERTS: I'm good. Welcome to the program.
FERDINAND: Thank you.
ROBERTS: Go ahead. You're on the air.
FERDINAND: Oh. Well, what I was calling about, I'm a rancher on the Mexican border. I'm calling from San Antonio, but I've had a lot of firsthand experience and ongoing experience with the border situation. And you know, just - there's a lot going on there, and I think there's a lot of misconception about what really is happening there.
ROBERTS: What would you say? How would you clear up the misconception? What do we need to know?
FERDINAND: Well, it seems to me, when I watch the general media, that there's just a whole lot of it's sort of a black or white issue. It's really not that. It's so intertwined; the border cultures on both side are so intertwined, Texas I mean, the United States with Mexico. It's really hard to separate the economies and everything. But one of the things that I do know, and I experience, is there is a tremendous amount of illegal and violent things happening in Mexico, and on this side of the border, that are all connected.
And people just seem to look the other way. I'm very concerned, and people that live there are very concerned, about the safety of people, about the well-being of our country for people that wanted to smuggle weapons into this country. It wouldn't be that hard to do. And most of it's controlled with the criminal gangs of Mexico that control virtually all crime. They call them drug gangs, but it's really - they're just criminals, and they control every facet of it.
So when we have people come through our ranch that are illegal aliens, a lot of times that's all controlled by the drug gangs. They make them carry drugs to guide them into this country - part of the deal. It's all that sort of thing, and a lot of the people coming across, we've been told by the Border Patrol, don't touch them, don't let them get near you. A lot of them are bringing diseases that we don't know what they have. So don't ever touch them.
Nobody seems to ever talk about those things. And I think there are just a lot of those issues. I personally can't go to the ranch without having a pistol. I carry a pistol. I wouldn't let my wife or friends go down there by themselves, without somebody that can guard them. And this is in the United States that we have to act like that.
ROBERTS: Ferdinand, thank you so much for your call. We are talking this hour about stories along the U.S.-Mexico border. Let's hear from Tracy(ph) in Casper, Wyoming, which is not on the border. Tracy, welcome to the program.
TRACY (Caller): Thank you.
ROBERTS: Go ahead, you're on the air.
TRACY: I would just like to make a couple of comments. Mexicans dont have leprosy, for one. You can touch them. They're not full of diseases. That's kind of rude to say something like that. But first of all, I actually went down to Mexico with my husband, who actually is illegal. And we tried to start our paperwork for immigration the legal way, and go back to Mexico and start it. And it is quite the lengthy process. It's about five years. And on our way back down to Mexico, where he is from, we were actually kidnapped by the police department themselves. And...
ROBERTS: In Mexico or in the U.S.?
TRACY: Yeah. We were in Oaxaca. Matter of fact, the national - we were on our way to Oaxaca, Mexico, and we were kidnapped in Veracruz, Poza Rica, by the police department down there, and they actually got into my car with me. And they held me and my husband separate from each other for a little over two hours until we paid $2,000 cash. And they asked me if my infant son had a passport and if he wouldnt have had a passport, they would have taken him and they would have sold him. And we were scared to death. We had to hide from the police because they were just waiting for us in every town we came to. And we finally made it to our house, and we couldnt even drive our car around. They knew we were there. And we were robbed in three different towns before we were kidnapped by - and they were all by police officers. They were real police officers.
And it's hard to make a living down there. And now - I've never been out of the country, but when I actually went down there, I didnt expect it to be as bad as it was. And now I know why 9 million Mexicans cross the border every year, as you...
ROBERTS: And what is your husband's status?
TRACY: I'm sorry, say that again?
ROBERTS: Your husband's status, immigration status?
TRACY: He's illegal. We're in the middle of the paperwork. We had to come back home and start it up here because they werent - we couldn't go anywhere to start anything. They were going to kill us or kidnap us.
ROBERTS: Tracy, thank you for your call. Carlos Flores, we're hearing a lot of fear and mistrust and violence in these stories from our callers. Carlos Flores, are you still there?
Prof. FLORES: Pardon? Yes?
ROBERTS: Yeah. It might be a coincidence that the calls that we've just heard first, that - there's a lot of fear and violence. Is that the way you would characterize the culture of the border?
Prof. FLORES: Well, I wouldnt characterize all of it. I mean, certainly, there's a lot of that on the Mexican side. Much of what you've heard is accurate. In fact, right now, I just received a report from Stratburg Information Agency(ph) describing numerous violent incidents throughout Mexico. So no, that's not a distortion. A lot of people on this side are afraid to go Nuevo Laredo, for example, crossing to the border - I mean, to cross in to Mexico to - you know, they normally - for example, my wife went - many years ago, we would - my wife and I would cross into Nuevo Laredo regularly in the evening. And now, hardly anybody wants to go over there.
I get reports - in fact, I got a report just the other day from another family who had had a business in Nuevo Laredo, who moved to - on this side because he had been kidnapped - him and members of his family had been kidnapped by members of one of the drug cartels. So no, the violence is not exaggerated. That is correct. But there's another side to all of this, and that is that a friend of mine, John Stevenson(ph), who lives in San Miguel de Allende, visited with me recently and said to me - he's originally from New York, by the way. And he says that the Mexican government is being forced to fight a war that in fact is - pertains - is the United States. That's one point.
The second point that I want to make is this. If the people - let's say law-abiding, normal, middle-class people in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico - are very upset that they're having to put up with basically, a problem they see as the United States. Now earlier, a gentleman commented about the smuggling of arms north into the United States. Well, as you well know, there are numerous reports coming out saying that many of those arms, in fact, are originating in the United States and certainly, Laredo has been one place where - I mean, many, many, many weapons have been sold to - through third parties to Mexican - I mean, to the drug gangs.
ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I want to get another caller in here. This is Amanda(ph) in Miami. Amanda, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
AMANDA (Caller): Hi. I love your show. Thank you very much for having me.
ROBERTS: Thank you for being here.
AMANDA: I'm Mexican-American, and my mother is kind of a student who stayed too long. She's now a naturalized citizen, of course. And - but it's just - if people seem to think that immigrants are this fleeting thing, think that we just move in and then move out, correct? But I'm now an American citizen. I can contribute so much to the economy. I'm going to be a teacher, you know? I'm going to help stimulate the future children of America. And I really wonder what people believe, that immigrants just come in and then leave - and leave, you know, America a more terrible place. I dont understand why people would think that.
ROBERTS: Amanda, thank you for you call. Amanda touches on something we heard earlier from Ted Robbins, about the majority of people who are in this country illegally are overstaying a visa. They're not sneaking across the border in the sort of classic, coyote-led way that we hear about in news reports - which is sort of a different part of the debate, both in terms of who they are and what you do in terms of enforcement. Carlos Flores?
Prof. FLORES: Pardon?
ROBERTS: Well, I...
Prof. FLORES: I didnt understand your question.
ROBERTS: Yeah. Well, let me touch on something that we were talking about earlier, which is this idea of the border being very fluid, that people who live on the border go back and forth - or had, before people were scared of violence, that the culture of living in a place where you can see another country is - there's not just sort of a hard-and-fast line between them.
Prof. FLORES: That's correct.
ROBERTS: And is that still true where you see it, in Laredo?
Prof. FLORES: Well, I think that - I dont know that that's changed significantly because I mean, for example, I have - we have relatives on both sides of the border. And so it's very difficult, you know, to not to cross on a regular basis. I have students that cross every day. So the nexus - the connections between the two sides, let's say, of the Mexican border - I mean, of the border, are very tight. However, you know, with the threat of building the new wall and then the recent law in Arizona, well, certainly there's a lot of tension. And a lot of people feel that were such a law implemented - let's say, in this part of the country, which is South Texas, that it would really, you know, heighten the tension in relationships between - you know, two sides of the border.
ROBERTS: Carlos Flores teaches English at Laredo Community College in Laredo, Texas. He's also the author of "Our House On Hueco." He joined me today by phone from his office in Laredo. Thank you so much.
Prof. FLORES: Yes, ma'am. Thank you.
ROBERTS: Coming up, the suspected Times Square car bomber left more than propane tanks and fertilizer behind. He left an SUV full of clues. We'll talk with a former investigator about what police found, and what it told them. Stay with us. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.