Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a series about the border crisis. Read the first story, about Sister Norma Pimentel and her work with the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, here; the second piece examines the crisis through the eyes of Kevin Pagan, the City of McAllen’s emergency management coordinator. In the fourth installment, we spend a day with the Border Patrol. In the fifth installment, our reporter talks with Edras, a sixteen-year-old who made the 1,400-mile trek from Guatemala.
“It’s a totally different world,” says Othal E. Brand Jr., president of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District 3, as we drive toward the Rio Grande in his massive, black, two-decades-old Cadillac Brougham, the urban sprawl of McAllen gradually being overtaken by thick brush. “Those that are living in the country or those on the river, they’ll tell you horror stories that no one in the city ever sees.”
Brand—a silver-haired, six-foot-five 61-year-old with a ruddy tan and a black-slapping manner—had picked me up near Interstate 2, and now we were nearing his district’s pumping station, a riverfront facility close to the city of Hidalgo that occupies a sort of territorial and administrative no-man’s-land. The station is firmly on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande but sits on the Mexican side of the eighteen-foot-tall steel border fence. It has long been the major provider of drinking water for the city of McAllen but is essentially its own fiefdom; run by an elected five-member board, it has been taken to task by the State Auditor’s Office for lacking good government controls. (The City of McAllen, which has long feuded with District 3, pushed for state legislators to dissolve it in both 2011 and 2013.) The pumping station itself doesn’t even appear on the exhaustively comprehensive Google Maps. “I guess civilization hasn’t caught up with everything that’s on the river yet,” Brand says.
At first glance, the pumping station also appears to exist out of time. As we pass through the border fence and wind our way through the lush property, Brand narrates the history of the facility. He points out a nearly ninety-year-old white bungalow sitting just off the road. (“All the water districts used to have little colonias around them,” he says. “If you worked for a water district you lived on the premises.”) He shows off a grove of statuesque cypress trees. (“The river used to be covered with them in the late 1800s, early 1900s—these are seven of the last”). He proudly informs me that half of “his men” grew up living at the station. (Brand was criticized in 2012 when he hired nine district employees to fix up his mother’s house following a freak hailstorm. “They were not on the clock. They were not on district time,” he said.) And then, after making our way through the grounds, we reach the river.
The pumping station itself is an impressive sight—a cube of generators, motors, and ducts perched on stilts above the river’s flood plain—but it recedes into the background as the overwhelming glut of law enforcement stationed around it comes into view. SUVs from Border Patrol, DPS, and Texas Parks and Wildlife are parked on a high bluff keeping watch over the Rio Grande. A Border Patrol boat is being offloaded into the water. A Border Patrol watchtower looms over the sharply sloped banks of the river. A large metal grate in the water blocks the entrance to a protected inlet. Across the river, dense thickets of salt cedars form a subtropical curtain. The station looks less like a municipal utility in South Texas than a colonial plantation along the Mekong that the U.S. Army commandeered as a forward operating base.
Brand likes it this way. “We were having so much trouble, so much traffic, that we wanted some presence here,” he says. “My men built that boat ramp about three years ago after they were shot at. It’s the only boat ramp on a twenty-mile stretch of the river, and we just said [to Border Patrol], ‘Look, we’re going to build this, it’s for your use.’ Our traffic here is zero right now, and the reason it is zero is because I’ve put up cameras which I give the Border Patrol access to. I’ve given them a boat ramp; I’ve put in paths and roads; I’ve cleared a staging area for them; this whole area’s Wi-FI; I have backup power. I’ve tried to make our area very friendly for law enforcement. It has absolutely stopped all the traffic.”
This isn’t the Rio Grande on which Brand grew up. “We used to play on the river—swim, ski, barbecue, camp out. I don’t think anybody can tell you better than those that live on the river: this is not what we’ve been accustomed to.” When drug violence exploded in Mexico last decade, the river began to take on a much darker cast for Brand, and when the workers at the District 3 pump were shot at from the Mexican shore in July 2011, the river seemed outright treacherous. Brand, like many in the Valley, sees the current humanitarian crisis as simply the latest act in an ongoing border tragedy.
Brand is as close to Rio Grande Valley royalty as they come. His father, Othal E. Brand Sr., served as mayor from 1977 to 1997, ruling the area like a modern pharaoh. He was a successful, controversial, and colorful civic leader, presiding over a period of tremendous economic growth while bullying his adversaries, suing newspapers that criticized him, running afoul of Mexican American activist groups, and, in one famous episode, opening fire on a grackle in the middle of the city, with a Wall Street Journal reporter beside him. He was also the area’s commercial boss, turning his McAllen-based company, Griffin & Brand, into the largest fruit and vegetable grower in the state. “We were the largest employer in the city of McAllen for almost two decades,” his son says. “We employed more people in McAllen than the city and the school put together.”
Brand Jr., who ran most of his father’s campaigns and worked at his family’s company until the late nineties, when it shut down after years of steep losses, rules over a smaller kingdom. He remembers more peaceful days by the river when he knew all the Border Patrol agents in the area by name. Now there are “too many and they switch them every day,” he says. “I get stopped every time I come down here—I’ve been coming down here for ten years. Sir, can I help you? And most of these guys they’re hiring, they come from everywhere but Texas.”
After the pump workers were shot at in 2011, Brand started carrying a handgun whenever he went down to the river. He invited the Water District’s workers to do the same. “I told my men, ‘You know what? I can’t protect you. If you believe your personal safety is at risk, then you carry a gun. You defend yourself if you see fit to do so.’ ” So far, neither Brand nor his workers have drawn their weapons, but he sees a day when self-defense might be needed. “There’s nothing anybody can do for us unless we literally have Border Patrol or the sheriff standing here all the time, which I do right now. How long that’ll be—I don’t know.”
“You assume the worst,” he continues. “Same reason you lock your door at night—because there are 950,000 people that wouldn’t bother you, but there’s one who would. You gotta be ready for that one. Last year, they pulled eight bodies out near this ramp, four of them with no heads. I was told none of them drowned.”
The picture Brand paints of the river is foreboding, and I wanted to know how he thought the Central American women and children fit into it. Do you think this immigration wave is actually dangerous?, I asked him. “Absolutely it’s dangerous!” he replied. “What they’ve done—first of all we’re told this wave is because there are radio ads being run in all those countries, and it’s the cartels that are doing it, because this is great business for them. Plus, it’s a great cover for them to get their stuff across. Just because these are all homeless people looking for jobs it’s safe? Hell no, it’s just as bad as it’s always been. [The traffickers have] just gotten better cover. Where’s all the attention right now? It’s not on the drug traffickers; it’s on these people, and drug traffickers know that and they love it.”
Brand’s views might be impolitic, and his vision of the dangers of this wave of Central American women and children depends on speculation more than evidence, but he’s hardly the only person working on the river with fears. When I spoke with District 3 constable Larry Gallardo, a generally upbeat elected official, his thoughts turned toward the apocalyptic: “Our concern is we don’t want the bad guys infiltrating these groups. Don’t you think it would be a prime opportunity for terrorists to come across?”
The day before I met Brand, another longtime area resident who works on the river had toured me around the area. She had installed video cameras on the property to capture animal movements and was surprised to find that instead they mostly picked up footage of groups of immigrant men running through the bushes. They were not immigrants looking to be caught by Border Patrol like the Central American asylum seekers who willingly turn themselves over. When she and I walked down to the shoreline, we saw a discarded plastic gas tank and Styrofoam trays, detritus from a crossing. Later, as we were leaving, a Border Patrol helicopter zoomed overhead and started to descend in circles above us. Soon a Border Patrol agent in a truck found us. “We must have tripped one of the sensors,” she said later. “I used to tell people I lived in the DMZ. Now it’s just the MZ.”
As Brand was touring me around the pumping station grounds, I asked him what he thought the solution was. After all, his version of border security was to turn his stretch of the river into a staging area for quasi-military operations. Unless the entire U.S. Army was going to be deployed along the Rio Grande, this wasn’t a transferable solution, and would anyone who used to water-ski and barbecue and camp out on the river really want anything like that anyway?
“To live in your country and think that you have to have this kind of environment imposed on your own ground is pretty mindboggling,” Brand said. “I don’t have any answers, but I also don’t think I’m supposed to be the savior of the world. All I know is what I’m responsible for, and this is what I’m responsible for. So this is where I’m going to do my part along the river—as best I can.”