As the issue of immigration took center stage following the passage of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, the debate over the possibility of Mexico’s drug violence crossing the Rio Grande onto U.S. soil became a topic of debate. Senior editor Nate Blakeslee visited Texas border towns from the westernmost tip of the state to the Gulf Coast to find out what the threat of spillover violence means for those whose loved ones and livelihoods rest on the border. Here’s the story behind the story.
Do you think the national media coverage of border spillover violence in Texas is accurate?
There has been a lot of overheated rhetoric about the prospect of spillover violence, though most of that seems to be coming from politicians, not reporters. I do think spillover violence became one of those terms that was widely used in media coverage before it was ever really defined, and this is always a problem. If there have been shortcomings in the coverage of this issue, it has been in failing to treat some assertions, such as those made by Arizona governor Jan Brewer about headless bodies found in the Arizona desert, with a sufficiently skeptical eye. Likewise, the rumor that the Zetas were planning to blow up the dam on the Falcon Reservoir in the Valley never had any credible sourcing, though the supposed plot was featured on Fox News.
You describe a moment on a ranch road near the Rio Grande when a longtime Del Rio resident encounters a border patrol agent who was born in Puerto Rico. Is the idea of Hispanic Border Patrol agents policing and detaining Hispanic immigrants an issue for people on the border?
To me, the significance of this moment was how well it highlighted what a strange thing the new security-based economy in Del Rio really is. How did we get to this point, where it seems normal for an old rancher driving the back forty to encounter a young man who has come all the way from Puerto Rico to this remote spot in the Texas desert, where his job is to chase down Mexicans all day in the heat?
How did you come up with the idea to look at the flight of Mexico’s wealthy through the booming real estate industry in affluent Sharyland neighborhoods in McAllen?
I read a piece, I think in the Wall Street Journal, about how the violence in Reynosa was threatening the booming economy in McAllen. But what I was hearing from people in McAllen was the opposite: that the exodus of wealthy Mexicans leaving their homes in Reynosa, Matamoros, and even Monterrey and relocating their families, businesses, and personal wealth to the Texas side was really helping the town weather the recession better than almost any other place in the country. I thought that was a much more interesting story than the seemingly endless search for some instance of the Mexican cartel wars claiming a casualty in Texas.
Do you think that will change people’s perceptions of Mexican immigrants and the scope of who is affected by border drug violence?
The Mexicans relocating to comfortable neighborhoods in McAllen, Laredo, and El Paso certainly don’t fit the stereotype of the illegal immigrants driving legislation like Arizona’s SB 1070, though there is no question that many of them have come across without getting the proper visas. As is so often true, money changes everything. Someone who lives in an expensive house, drives a nice car, and doesn’t have to work for wages is unlikely to wind up getting deported. In McAllen, a recent transplant from Monterrey told me that only Mexicans with money are in danger in Mexico right now anyway, since they are targeted for kidnapping and extortion. Of course this is untrue—living in Juárez is like living in a war zone, no matter who you are or how much money you have. I don’t know what our public policy should be toward refugees from the violence in Mexico, but I think it would be unfortunate if the U.S. decided that we can only afford to help those who are wealthy enough to help themselves.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
Much of the reporting on this subject that I have read has lacked context. In particular, there are three big-picture facts that have been frequently overlooked, perhaps because they are somewhat counterintuitive, given the tenor of the current debate over border security. One is that the Southwest border is a very safe part of the country. El Paso, for example, has one of the lowest rates of violent crime of any major urban area in the country, though it sits a stone’s throw from Juárez, perhaps the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere. The second is that rates of illegal immigration have been plummeting for years, even as the debate over the issue has gotten more and more acrimonious. And the third is that the federal government, often accused of “doing nothing” about border security, has actually done quite a lot: There are now twice as many border patrol agents as there were seven years ago, a massive ramping up in personnel that required an unprecedented recruiting effort and an enormous increase in the homeland security budget.