I. Albert Spratte, a husky 48-year-old U.S. Border Patrol agent, stood on the high-banked shore of Anzalduas Park, scanning the blue-gray waters of the Rio Grande. It was a typical June afternoon in Mission, with the sun transforming the South Texas town into a stifling convection oven. Occasionally a gentle breeze would whip off the water, breaking the heat, but it was only a minor reprieve. Everything—even the brittle grass—seemed to have been baked into a state of lethargy. 

To the untrained eye, nothing about the 96-acre park would arouse suspicion. A smattering of families was sprawled around picnic tables, munching on a late lunch. A few older men lounged in the shade of tall trees along the riverbank, gripping their fishing poles. A playground with plastic turrets and tube slides stood empty. Across the water, on the other side of the river, dozens of Mexicans in swimsuits sunbathed on a sandy public beach, while others splashed in the shallows.

Every so often, the languor would be shattered by a high-pitched roar. At the center of the river, a bevy of Jet Skis darted across the surface in aggressive curlicues, their wakes crashing against both shores. Upon first glance, their riders seemed to be doing nothing more than hotdogging on a summer day, but Spratte considered a more ominous possibility. “There’s an unusually large number of them out today,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s smuggling or if a lot of people have discovered Jet Skis.” 

Anzalduas Park, once best known for migratory songbirds and Boy Scout campouts, had grown notorious over the previous few weeks as a site of illegal border crossings, especially for the children and young families fleeing the violence-and-poverty-plagued countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and surging across the Rio Grande in record numbers. In May more than 10,000 unaccompanied minors had been taken into custody in the United States, a deluge that overwhelmed the processing capacities of the Border Patrol, the Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. immigration courts, leading to overcrowded facilities, protracted detentions, and absurdly delayed judicial hearings. (The average wait for a court date is now nearly six hundred days.) In early June President Barack Obama had declared the immigration wave an “urgent humanitarian crisis,” and the story soon erupted in headlines worldwide. 

As the summer wore on, the number of border apprehensions would drop, and the most overheated fears about the crisis would subside. By early September, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson would declare, “The worst is over for now.” Still, the impact of the migrant wave, especially in the area of its highest concentration, was seismic: of the 66,127 unaccompanied minors and 66,142 family units apprehended along the two-thousand-mile border during this fiscal year, a full three quarters crossed through the three-hundred-mile Rio Grande Valley. That glut of arrivals had presented agents like Spratte with a new set of problems. “There are two kinds of traffic,” he told me. “There’s the traffic that we have to catch and the traffic that catches us.” The newest influx of immigrants fell predominantly into the latter category, surrendering in droves to the first American law enforcement officers they met in the hopes of winning legal asylum. And there were few better places to get caught than Anzalduas Park, a wide-open tract that was overrun by officers from the Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the local constable’s office. Once an immigrant made it to shore, his or her apprehension was pretty much guaranteed.

The sheer volume had changed Spratte’s perspective on his job. “As an agent, it used to be that if you heard, ‘We’ve got a group of fifty,’ your heart started beating and you’d go for it,” Spratte said. “Now if you told me, ‘I’ve got a group of fifty, I need help,’ I’d laugh at you. If you said, ‘I’ve got a group of three hundred,’ that would be something.” 

Anzalduas Park wasn’t the busiest spot for crossings on the Rio Grande, but because it was easily accessible and open to the public, politicians and journalists congregated there to witness the immigration surge firsthand. For much of June, Spratte had been their guide. He liked working the line, and he was eager to show the out-of-towners what the border was really like. The son of an immigrant himself—his mother is from Spain—Spratte had spent the past eight years based in the Valley, and as the sergeant-at-arms of the local agents’ union, he was able to speak publicly despite the fact that the Border Patrol’s rank and file had been told to avoid the media. 

On the day I visited Anzalduas Park, Spratte was off-duty and he and I had driven down to the river together. Soon after we arrived, he spotted a truck from the local constable’s office parked near the shore. Standing next to it were a deputy and a trio of civilians—two women and one man—dressed in exercise clothes. They looked like lost tourists asking a friendly cop for directions.

“Oh, my God,” Spratte yelped as we got close enough to make them out in more detail. “They’re Chinese!” They’d likely arrived only a few moments earlier on smuggler-piloted Jet Skis. “For a while there, we were getting Indians,” Spratte said. “You’ll have certain people from one country, and it’ll ebb and flow.” 

A Border Patrol agent arrived to formally apprehend the Chinese migrants and take them to the McAllen station for processing. Spratte and I drove on, turning toward the park’s public boat ramp, where a dozen Department of Public Safety squad cars were parked in an imposing line. 

“The smugglers usually operate in pairs,” Spratte said as he looked back out at the Jet Skis on the water. “You’ll have somebody distracting, and downriver or upriver, there’s somebody crossing. Sometimes the Jet Skis are legitimate—people just having fun with their families. You don’t want to get to where you think they’re all guilty. But on weekends, the smugglers use the crowds as a distraction.” 

A few young men sat nearby on a wooden deck, perched above the water. We parked and walked over to get a good view of the river. “Look at the two guys to our left,” Spratte whispered as we stood on the deck. I turned. The men—in their late teens, maybe early twenties—looked totally unremarkable, a couple of dudes from the Valley hanging out on a Saturday afternoon. “One of them has been on his cellphone the whole time we’ve been here,” said Spratte. “The other guy has kind of a nice hat.” He paused. “The smugglers have a lot of scouts here. Does it mean those two are? No. But I think it’s reasonable that at least one of them is involved.”

The two guys soon got up and walked away, perhaps because they were wary of our whispering, perhaps because a Border Patrol vehicle was approaching, or perhaps because they simply had somewhere else to be. A few moments later, they drove by in a silver Chevy Malibu coupe, glaring at us, the one man still on his cell. 

“Maybe they were told to move,” Spratte said. “You hate saying ‘game,’ but it’s like a chess game. Where are the pieces moving?”

We got back into the car and continued driving around the park’s perimeter, only to see a black van in front of us speed off the road and come to a stop a few feet from the edge of a bluff. A burly, goateed man wearing an American flag bandanna around his head hopped out of the van, sprinted toward the hatchback, opened it, grabbed a video camera, and scrambled to get a shot of something in the water. Another cameraman also emerged from the van and was soon joined by a woman in a white dress and a tall, wiry guy wearing Stars and Stripes–patterned cowboy boots, who was directing the crew. Less than a minute later, they put down their cameras, exultant.

“Why do I gotta do your job, dude?” the cowboy-boots-wearing man said to Spratte when we approached a few moments later.

“No comment,” Spratte laughed. 

The man was Charlie LeDuff, the irreverent and proudly gonzo host of his own syndicated TV news show, The Americans With Charlie LeDuff. A Pulitzer Prize–winning former New York Times staff reporter and the author of the best-selling book Detroit: An American Autopsy, LeDuff nonetheless came across as a wild-man intellectual, a cross between Dennis Hopper and Anthony Bourdain. Spratte dubbed LeDuff “good people”—he’d shown him around Anzalduas Park the previous day—and now the TV host told the agent what we had just missed. A smuggler on a Jet Ski had been ferrying two people, one of them a pregnant woman, over to the U.S. shore. LeDuff and his crew had spotted the watercraft and sprung into action. The smuggler, seeing that he was about to be on camera, aborted his crossing with Scarface-like flair, sticking out his middle finger and shouting at the newsman over the roar of the Jet Ski’s engine. Returning to the Mexican shore, the smuggler cradled the pregnant woman in his arms and carried her onto the beach.

“It’s pretty crazy out here,” Spratte said. “They’ll be back once you leave. They don’t like the press.”

“No, I don’t think I’ve made a friend there,” said LeDuff. 

Spratte asked what the smuggler had said.

“ ‘You’re costing me money’—in English!”

“Is that going to be prominent?” Spratte asked.

“F— yeah!” LeDuff exclaimed. “We’re going to loop that bitch.”

II. Since the earliest days of the Texas republic, life on the Rio Grande has been both constantly evolving and forever repeating itself. The wild scrublands of the 1850’s were tamed into an agricultural boomtown in the 1900’s, with real-estate speculators selling “snow diggers” on cheap farming tracts and citrus dreams. Today, most of the farms are gone, and endless strip malls and impoverished colonias stand near lands reclaimed and restored to their natural state by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before there were rafts of Mexican marijuana and truckloads of U.S. firearms crossing the Rio Grande, there were bootleggers trafficking in tequila and rum; before the current surge of Central American children, there were the Brazilian immigrants in the mid-aughts, the Nicaraguan war refugees in the eighties, and the uninterrupted generations of Mexican laborers. Before July, when Governor Rick Perry announced that he would deploy one thousand National Guard troops to the border, there was the 2010 National Guard deployment, the 2006 deployment, the 1989 deployment, and the legendary 1916 deployment to protect the U.S. from the marauding forces of Pancho Villa.

And yet, for many Valley residents, the crisis this summer felt different. Never before had so many border crossers been among the most vulnerable—children traveling without their parents, young mothers carrying bewildered babies in their arms. And not since the Mexican Revolution had the Rio Grande Valley felt more militarized. Over the past two decades, law enforcement presence on the river had spiked sharply: in 1994 there were 393 Border Patrol agents in the Valley; as of July there were 3,234, with another 300 slated to arrive by the end of the year. Add to that a $30 million deployment of DPS troopers, the arrival of the National Guard, and the appearance of a few anti-immigrant militias, and it was difficult to go near the river without running a gantlet of lawmen and the occasional vigilante.

Nowhere was this clearer than a few miles downriver from Anzalduas Park, on an overgrown expanse known as Rincón village. The area had once been home to more than two hundred families, but it had since been deserted and was almost entirely bought up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thanks to its proximity to Reynosa, it has become the preferred spot for smugglers to bring children and families across by the hundreds. In response, Border Patrol agents have effectively closed the area to all civilians, including the media. 

But one Sunday morning in August, I drove there with Lorenzo Anzaldúa Jr., a 49-year-old medication aide who grew up in Rincón and now serves as the self-appointed representative of the abandoned community. Anzaldúa traces his family’s roots in the area back “two-hundred-twenty-something years,” to before there was a Texas or even a Mexico; Anzalduas Park, Anzalduas Dam, and the nearby Anzalduas International Bridge were all named after his distant forebears. His family members—his sister, an aunt, and a cousin—still own land in Rincón village, and Anzaldúa is the only U.S. citizen without a badge to visit the area with any frequency. 

When Anzaldúa and I arrived in Rincón, he set up some folding chairs on his sister’s plot of land and warned me about rattlesnakes and a cougar that he’d recently heard prowling through the underbrush before launching into a soliloquy on his family’s history. He recalled how, as a boy, he had lain out on the grassy berm next to us, whiling away weekday afternoons doing his homework and drinking his mother’s iced tea. Looking out on the large fallow field behind us, he conjured his late father on a tractor, mowing the grass while wearing a crisp white shirt and drinking a can of Diet Coke. He pointed to the tree line surrounding the field, then told me how he used to hunt crows with a slingshot, and how his family had hosted dove-hunting parties that brought everyone from longtime congressman Kika de la Garza to the actor John Saxon—“the f—ing movie star, from Enter the Dragon! They shot over three hundred doves, those sons of bitches.” 

Anzaldúa motioned to a big cedar that, he said, stood above an old Indian burial ground, then gestured up the road to the spot where his great-uncle Pancho had shot himself in the head with a pistol. “My dad was five or six years old, and Grandpa said, ‘¡Ya se mató Panchito!’ ” [Panchito just killed himself.] 

There were great mysteries of the land too. In 1949 his father had discovered a vase full of gold coins buried on the family property. Elated, the boy had taken some of the coins and run off to show them to his own father. When he returned, the vase had vanished. “He said the money had been buried there by the devil,” Anzaldúa told me. “Every year, every f—ing year, people would show up, saying, ‘Yo peleo con el diablo, tú me agarras el dinero.’ [I’ll fight the devil, you grab the money.] People we didn’t even know.” 

Anzaldúa came to Rincón to sit with his family’s history every afternoon, and lately he’d been engaging in long conversations with his father, who had died in January. Despite his connection to the land, Anzaldúa had started to feel like an outsider. After we had parked, a Border Patrol agent had appeared from around a bend and asked me what I was doing there. The incident had sent Anzaldúa into a rage. “As an American, did you feel insulted?” he’d asked. “These people—they have no right to come. You could be my long-lost brother. And what business is it of them to ask?” Anzaldúa was wearing a camo-patterned T-shirt and held a pump-action shotgun in his left hand. “They’re treating us like we’re the bad guys,” he said of the Border Patrol. “They’re walking around like they can’t get in trouble. They treat me like I’m the Johnny-come-lately, and it’s them—that’s what ticks me off.”

Over the years, Anzaldúa had seen border crossers of every stripe come through his family’s land, and his views on them were conflicted. He felt compassion for the children, he said; he had even confronted a Border Patrol agent who, he claimed, was forcing the minors and families to walk five miles before picking them up. “I asked him, ‘Why do you make the kids walk?’ and he said, ‘Teach them a lesson.’ And I told the Border Patrol, ‘Are you that cold, guy?’ ”

But Anzaldúa felt less charitable toward most other crossers. He said that some had ransacked his aunt’s vacant house, and he remembered when others, decades earlier, had stolen from his family’s neighbors. Once, his cousin had caught one rifling through the bed of his truck. (The cousin shot the man in the kneecap.) If Anzaldúa ever came across anyone running drugs through his family’s property, he said, he would shoot to kill. “I call them wetbacks because they’re just plain evil, those people,” he said.

It wasn’t the constant stream of border crossers that worried him. He’d been in the infantry for eleven years—“Went up to the DMZ and f—d shit up”—and he could handle himself if any of the evil ones came around. It was all the law enforcement agents who had him worked up. The National Guard wouldn’t arrive in the Valley for a few more weeks, but Anzaldúa was already anticipating how they would make a bad situation worse. “Some yutz private, first time out in the field, thinking it’s a f—ing bivouac, he’s going to pull his M16 and he’s going to shoot someone, and it could be us,” he said. At one point, we could hear the hum of a helicopter that was about to fly over his aunt’s property. “Let’s walk out into the field to f— with him,” he said. He ventured into the clearing, shotgun in hand.

Anzaldúa had spoken about the dangers on the border—especially the larcenous “wetbacks”—with a host of media covering the crisis, from local Channel 4 to the national CBS Evening News, and a representative from a right-wing militia had reached out to him afterward. “A guy said, ‘Hey, brother, it’s nice to know a Mexican American feels this way. Let us know if you need our help.’ I deleted the email. I don’t want them. I don’t want the militia here.” 

A day later, I visited one of Anzaldúa’s cousins, Martín Villarreal, who, until recently, had owned a plot in Rincón. Villarreal was the new city manager of Granjeno, a nearby community of 313 residents that was founded on Spanish land grants, in 1767. While Villarreal welcomed law enforcement, he thought, like Anzaldúa, that lately things had been getting out of hand. A few days earlier, a Border Patrol ATV had been racing through town at night with its lights off and crashed into a resident’s car.

“In 1967 I was in Vietnam, the Third Marine Division,” Villarreal told me. “I walk into Granjeno at seven-thirty in the morning, and there’s a chopper there and I don’t know how many state troopers going by, how many Border Patrols, and I go, ‘Whoa! This is like a combat zone.’ Never thought I’d see it again, and there it is. I see these boats with .30-caliber machine guns speeding at fifty miles an hour down the river. What’s happening? What’s going to happen to our little community now?”

III. Ten miles and several horseshoe-shaped swings upriver from Anzalduas Park, the protected U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges are interspersed with large family farms, the remnants of the Valley’s first economic boom, when tracts of citrus groves lined the river and the fruit and vegetable industry rivaled those of California and Florida. By the time I visited this more remote part of the Valley in late summer, the stream of immigrants had slowed considerably. In July 5,500 unaccompanied minors were detained at the border, a drop of almost half from the previous month; in August the number fell further still, to just over 3,000. No one could conclusively say why, or if the trend would continue, but those who worked and lived on the river knew that another wave—whether children or others—was certain to come again.

“Twenty years ago, we’d have people who worked for us that would go back and forth,” a local farmer in his mid-seventies told me one morning in early August as we drove through his orange groves. “In this area, probably a third of the people are illegal. If it weren’t for illegals to harvest all our crops, hell, we wouldn’t have vegetables and fruit. Border Patrol, it’s understood that they do not check people working. We have workers in the field, and they don’t check them.”

The farmer—tall, broad-shouldered, gravel-voiced—had lived in the Valley all his life. He asked that I not use his name. Living next to the river, he said, he wanted to lie low lest he attract the attention of the cartels. “I’m not going to have a horse’s head in bed with me, like in The Godfather,” he told me. 

Despite recognizing the need for immigrant workers, the farmer was hardly an open-border advocate. He thought the newest arrivals from Central America should be sent back to their home countries, and he was smitten with an Aerostat surveillance blimp that had been redeployed from Afghanistan and now enabled the Border Patrol to keep an aerial watch over his stretch of the river. But like others in the Valley, he was a pragmatist, and he had seen that decades upon decades of security buildups and deportations had been temporary solutions at best. The farmer was old enough to remember the days in the forties and fifties when, on Saturday nights, all the farmworkers would celebrate the end of the work week in town, then return across the river to Mexico in time for church on Sunday. He remembered how the Immigration and Naturalization Service had launched Operation Wetback in 1954 and how “they had the Army General [Joseph May] Swing down here, and Army trucks and those Piper Cub airplanes that flew over, and they told everybody, ‘Go home, or we’re going to put you in jail.’ ”

On his land, the farmer had made some small efforts toward crafting his own immigration solution. Groups of border crossers had been clambering over his metal gates, and the collective weight and wear had damaged them. To protect the gates, he had erected a wooden ladder on both sides of the adjacent fencing, allowing immigrants to more easily pass over the barricade. On another gate, he had placed barbed wire along the top, not to stop migrants from crossing it but to force them to climb over the sturdier metal rungs on the fence beside it. These were Valley solutions, a recognition that prevention was a fool’s errand and accommodation could make everyone’s life easier.

Owning land on the river had also brought the farmer into contact with the darker realities of the borderlands, and he said there’d been shoot-outs on his farm, with Border Patrol agents and cartel gunmen exchanging fire across the river. Every so often, a body would turn up on his shore, sometimes with the bruises and scars of a violent end, sometimes with a serene lifelessness that betrayed no cause of death. Many of the people I’d spoken to along the river carried guns with them for protection. But the farmer, a crack shot and a U.S. Army veteran, refused to do so. 

“It’s already bad enough seeing people killed,” he said. “I found a guy down on the shore a couple of months ago. It’s an eerie feeling. He’d died that night. He was still wet—had tattoos all over his neck. It made me shake just seeing him. So I don’t want to shoot anybody. I don’t carry. Everybody thinks I’m crazy. 

“I’ve been here a long time. All these illegal aliens here come through, and they’re never threatening. They’re scared, they’re shaking, begging. We had this young woman knock on our door. She was all wet, and it was forty degrees outside, and she was shaking and scratched up and muddy. We put her up for the night. It’s easy to say ‘Get all those people’ when it’s a big group. But when you have a person come to you, which we’ve seen a lot of, especially women, it’s you as a person and them as a person. You have to help them. If it’s groups, we call the Border Patrol. But if it’s a single individual, we normally help them.”

Some time ago, the farmer told me, he decided he’d had enough of helping immigrants. A woman arrived from El Salvador on his doorstep and asked for assistance. She’d been in the brush for two nights, and she handed him the phone number of a relative for him to call. He told her to go out to the road and wait by a certain mesquite tree for her ride. Then, instead of calling her relative, he dialed the Border Patrol. It was a Sunday morning, and after getting off the phone, he and his wife got dressed up to go to church. As he was driving by the spot where he’d told the woman to wait, he had a change of heart. 

“I thought, ‘Oh, what the hell,’ and blew the horn. There she comes, up from the other side of the road, saying, ‘Immigration is here, they almost got me.’ I would’ve felt so guilty, so I brought her down to my office. About a month later, she called me from El Salvador to thank me for helping her. She got caught eventually, but we helped her.”

IV. Not long ago, U.S. Route 83 in McAllen looked like a quaint thoroughfare in a third-tier city. Drive down it now, however, and you’ll find yourself on a bustling, chain-restaurant-and-traffic-clogged stretch worthy of Southern California’s Inland Empire. South Texas is booming: the population of the four counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley—Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy—is now more than 1.3 million, a number that’s grown by 33 percent since the 2000 census on the strength of trade, tourism, and a steady influx of Mexicans and their assets. Elon Musk’s pioneering private spaceflight firm, SpaceX, recently finalized a deal to build an $85 million launch site in Brownsville. The area is still among the poorest in the country, but drive by McAllen-Miller International Airport, and you’ll see Gulfstream jets parked on the tarmac. 

Every bend in the river, every road off the highway, reveals its own starkly different reality. On a Sunday afternoon in August, just after visiting Anzaldúa in Rincón village, I stood beneath a massive thatched-roof palapa as a lavish party slowly got under way. The immigration surge had slowed significantly and the law enforcement presence continued to build, but the palapa seemed a world apart from both. A few hundred people—women in heavy makeup and designer sunglasses, men with gelled hair and dark-wash blue jeans—milled about, sipping on cans of Bud Light and downing plastic cups full of margaritas and salty dogs. Outside the palapa, a cook was grilling thin cuts of beef while a whole hog smoldered over coals. In a nearby field, preteen girls were lined up, taking turns riding a small horse in circles. These were the migrants of the “Méxodo”—the Mexican exodus—mostly men and women of means who had fled the violence of the neighboring state of Tamaulipas and now lived in Texas legally. As the guests enjoyed the food, a woman in a body-hugging, black-and-white-striped dress swayed back and forth on a small stage, singing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” in slightly accented English. A sign tied to the beams of an adjacent palapa read “Sin límites” (“Without boundaries”).

The palapa club had once been Pepe’s on the River, a Valley hot spot revered by generations of Mexican teens and winter Texans as the best place to kick back for a boozy afternoon on the Rio Grande. But after nearly fifty years of continuous operation, floods from Hurricane Alex had wiped out the venue in 2010, and by then, the violence in Mexico had exploded and the economic recession dragged on. Pepe’s never reopened. 

Now, however, thanks to two Reynosa entrepreneurs—nightclub impresario Ángel González and newspaper publisher Heriberto Deándar—the venue was being revived and remade as an upscale party complex, to be called, simply, the River. The grounds were still under construction—the grand opening wasn’t scheduled until the fall—but if the renderings that González showed me were to be believed, the venue would soon look like a luxurious Caribbean resort. There would be three swimming pools of varying size, shape, and depth—all outfitted with massage jets. There would be six rooftop Jacuzzis, reserved for big-spending guests. A highly secure parking area would both protect and showcase the fancy vehicles of VIP customers. “We have friends with two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar cars,” González explained. There would be bottle service too. “This is going to be like Cancún. We’re expecting between three thousand and five thousand people every weekend.” González said he would welcome everyone—Méxodo friends, winter Texans, and Valley residents alike. The San Diego deejay Ookay, who had played an earlier preopening party for the club, had taken to Twitter to declare that the River was “super dope.”

A few feet from the edge of the palapa, the waters of the Rio Grande were flowing slowly toward Anzalduas Park, Anzalduas Dam, and, eventually, Rincón village. It was prime boating hour, a time when families throughout Texas were toasting the end of the weekend in kayaks and powerboats. But aside from the occasional Mexican jet skier and a parade of DPS gunboats, the Rio Grande had no water traffic at all. It was hard to imagine, against the stillness, that a gaudy riverfront club could find its public. Winter Texans were becoming a rarer breed—according to one report, their numbers had dropped from 144,000 in 2009 to 100,000 in 2013—and just a few weeks earlier, Perry had referred to the area as a “battlefield.” East Texas congressman Louie Gohmert had done the governor one better, going so far as to suggest that warships be deployed to the region in order to counter the D-day-scale “invasion” of children and young mothers. I’d spent a couple of weeks in the area, and while no one in the Valley shared Gohmert’s hyperbolic assessment, I hadn’t been able to find a single resident who still boated recreationally on the Rio Grande. Many told me they wouldn’t even travel down to the river anymore. “We’re taking a big risk,” González had acknowledged.

And yet on the afternoon of the party, many of the Mexican guests were downright bullish about the river’s future. Shortly after I arrived, González introduced me to one of the club’s VIPs, Oscar Luebbert, an affable middle-aged economist and politician who just so happened to have served as mayor of Reynosa, once from 1996 to 1998 and again from 2008 to 2010. Places like the River, Luebbert felt, were among the keys to a cross-border renaissance. Reynosa had been one of the fastest-growing economies in all of Mexico before the Zetas began their war against the Gulf cartel in 2010, and the city was still an industrial giant, with huge natural gas reserves nearby, maquiladoras pumping out auto parts and electronics, and a glut of AutoZones and H-E-Bs and Church’s Chickens to rival McAllen’s. The economic fundamentals, declared Luebbert, were simply too strong for the violence to prevail.

As we talked, a DPS boat zoomed by, mounted machine guns at the ready. González had told me he was comforted by the show of force—“It’s like security at a nightclub,” he said—but Luebbert now dismissed the boat with the wave of a hand. “It’s for the news,” he said. American gunboats weren’t going to end the cartel wars, and they weren’t going to stop Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan families from trying to make a go of it in the U.S. Luebbert felt his country was turning a corner of its own. A new security strategy from the Mexican federal government was sending the halcones—cartel spies—into hiding, and a revitalized northern Mexico would help stanch both the flow of immigrants and the rate of violence. Reynosa wasn’t exactly Mayberry—shoot-outs were still an almost daily occurrence, and Luebbert lived in a gated community and was often accompanied by an ex-policeman driver—but he insisted that he felt safe and that Texans, who had once visited Reynosa in droves, would soon return. “The two sides of the river are married,” he said, “and we have to understand what’s happening on the other side of the bed.”

Three days later, Luebbert and I were driving across the Anzalduas International Bridge into Reynosa. To our left, the dense foliage of Rincón village created a formidable canopy. Across the roadway, three lanes of cars sat bumper to bumper, waiting to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint and into Mission. We were the only car bound for Mexico. After clearing a Mexican Army checkpoint, Luebbert guided us down the Carretera Ribereña toward the Mexican side of Anzalduas Dam and on to a privately owned recreation area anchored by the Zoológico de Reynosa. Just downriver was La Playita, the beach across from Anzalduas Park.

It was a Wednesday morning, and a few Mexican families were canoeing around a small lagoon, enjoying the end of summer vacation. A little farther inland, groups of kids were feeding goats and piglets at a wooden barn called La Granja del Tío Juan, and a busload of mothers and children were gawking at what was said to be the only “zonkey” in Mexico. Soon, Alfredo Moreno, the property’s owner, arrived and invited Luebbert and me on a boat tour. We piled aboard the double-decker ferry, and as we powered upriver, we passed a succession of brand-new, well-appointed houses. Moreno was developing a subdivision with eighteen lots right on shore. A well-known plastic surgeon had bought one of them; Deándar, the River’s co-owner, had recently purchased two. When we passed one modernist glass-and-stone house, I noted that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Malibu. Moreno smiled. His real dream, he said, was even more audacious.

“I want a binational park,” he declared. In his vision, Anzalduas Park, La Playita, and his property would be connected by a zone of free passage. Mexicans could boat across to Anzalduas Park and enjoy a picnic with their Texas relatives. Texans could make the reverse journey and come see the zonkey. No passports required. The fact that Anzalduas Park was surrounded by the Rio Grande’s flood levee—effectively a border fence—would seal the deal, Moreno said. To enter the rest of the U.S., all parkgoers would have to pass through a phalanx of law enforcement vehicles. Who could possibly object?

Sitting in the boat listening to Moreno, I stared out at Anzalduas Park. The boat ramp was lined with about a dozen DPS squad cars, just as it had been in June, and a few trucks from the constable’s office idled in the shade. There were, as far as I could see, no civilians in the park at all. Efforts in Congress to address the border crisis had fizzled out in recent weeks, and Obama would soon renege on the vow to overhaul the country’s immigration system on his own. Immigration reform was toxic in Washington, and even the mention of a binational park in the halls of the Capitol would likely lead to outbursts that would make Gohmert’s D-day comments look restrained. That meandering river, the Rio Grande, had, in some ways, never seemed wider. 

Earlier in the summer, the day after touring Anzalduas Park with Spratte, I had returned to the same stretch of river with another law enforcement officer, Hidalgo County constable Lazaro “Larry” Gallardo. As we’d driven around the park, we had come upon a small group of his deputies standing near a picnic table with a teenage boy. 

“This guy just came across,” Gallardo explained, getting out of his truck. The kid had spiky black hair and wore a long-sleeved black T-shirt inlaid with a rhinestone crucifix. He was sixteen, from El Salvador, and said that he’d come to the U.S. to live with a cousin in New York. His father was dead. He had no brothers and sisters. He wanted to help his mother. As Gallardo questioned him, the boy’s voice started to quiver.

“Are you afraid right now?” Gallardo asked in Spanish. 

“No,” the boy replied. 

“Don’t be scared,” Gallardo reassured him. Gallardo turned to me. “We had a sixteen-year-old and a four-year-old the other day—the sixteen-year-old was the uncle, and the four-year-old’s mother and father had been here for two years already,” he said. “That means the four-year-old had not seen his mother for two years.”

A white-and-green Border Patrol truck arrived a few minutes later, and a friendly, upbeat Spanish-speaking agent got out. In a matter of moments, the boy would be whisked away to the McAllen Border Patrol station, where he would be processed and transferred to an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility for juveniles. If the federal government deemed his cousin a suitable guardian, the boy would likely end up in New York with him. Many months later, he would have to make a case to an asylum officer or immigration judge that he should be allowed to stay in the country. For him, the Valley—its poverty, its excess, its dreams, its realities, its history—meant very little, but Anzalduas Park was a landmark he would remember for the rest of his life. Standing on the grass on a late Sunday afternoon, surrounded by a curious reporter and law enforcement officers from two different agencies, he had finally arrived. 

“What’s your name?” the Border Patrol agent asked the boy, in Spanish.

“Olvin,” the boy said in voice that was now steady and clear.

“Olvin,” the agent repeated slowly to himself. He smiled. “Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos, Olvin.”