On the Border, Living in the Shadow of Separated Families

As VOA approached the 77,000-square-foot detention center from one side, three young cousins trekking on a dirt side road stopped.

“Yep, that’s Ursula,” said Ramon Montoya through the driver’s window of a red pickup, referring to the detention center, a sterile dirty-white box with burgundy trim that stands a few kilometers north of Mexico. Locally, the center is called by the name of the street it’s on, Ursula.

The Kansas-born son of Mexican-native parents and meat industry workers, 20-year-old Montoya moved to McAllen, Texas, with his family when he was in the fourth grade. 

“Where the Tex meets the Mex,” he described it, “a fusion of two cultures.”

“I love it here,” Montoya continued. “This place has a lot to offer and it’s sad to see it disgraced by something like this.”

Detention center

The detention center is also the country’s largest U.S. Border Patrol Processing Center and it is a short stroll from Montoya’s home. For him, there’s no escaping the reality of family separation in the South Texas border region, where illegal border crossers regularly seek refuge from economic hardship, cartel and domestic violence in their home countries.

Inside the facility since early May, more than 1,000 migrant parents and children were held and later routinely separated.

In Texas, a Republican stronghold politically, a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, showed a majority of state voters opposed separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border; while 28 percent supported it. Republican men were more likely to support the separation than were women and Democrats.

An executive order this week shifted the focus from family separation to family unit detention. But it did not clear up how families already separated are to be reunified and what kind of conditions detained families will be held in.

It did not ease the hit in the gut for some first- and second-generation Americans in a state that continues to swing toward greater diversity, where Latinos may outnumber non-Hispanic white residents by 2022.

Montoya, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, calls the situation shameful. 

“Put yourself in their place for just a second, and you might be able to understand why so many people are devastated by this,” he said.

​Laws not working

About an hour drive southeast of McAllen is Brownsville, an area rich with nature reserves that cut across the U.S.-Mexico barrier.

The proximity to sandy beaches on the Gulf with their palm trees and green parrots is what brought retired educator Larry Genuchi here 26 years ago.

Similar to McAllen, the area’s sizable share of Hispanic residents make for a diverse blend of shared traditions. But also like McAllen, the community has heard stories of migrant despair. It is also the site of a former Walmart-turned-foster care facility that houses more than 1,400 unaccompanied migrant boys, some of them forcibly separated from their families.

In an interview and downtown tour along the U.S.-Mexico border, Genuchi expressed nostalgia for the days he would stroll right across the bridge, before crime became rampant in neighboring Matamoros, Tamaulipas. He says he now hears gunshots across the Rio Grande River.

But while the 70-year-old from Lubbock, Texas, doesn’t claim to have all the answers, for him there is clearly a wrong one to solving illegal immigration.

“I’m a parent and a I’m also a grandfather and I’m telling you,” he said, “taking away children, putting them in danger — boy, that goes against everything in my body.”

Genuchi, who only shares his voting record with “God and my wife,” is appreciative of law enforcement for doing “the very best that they can.” But some policies, he suggests, need to change.

“All they’re trying to do now, I think, is just enforce the laws that are there,” Genuchi said. “But they’re finding out the laws don’t work real well.”

Caring but realistic

Newly elected GOP Hidalgo County Chair Adrienne Peña-Garza, the first woman to hold the position in the county, is transparent about her own role as a Hispanic Republican resident in an “extremely” democratic area.

Shielded from Thursday’s torrential downpour that resulted in Texas’ worst flooding post-Hurricane Harvey, Peña-Garza spoke to VOA by phone in her friend’s truck.

The porous border, as she describes it, needs to be fixed, and while she doesn’t think children should be separated from their parents under most circumstances, she believes stories in which a child’s safety is in question go underreported, along with the quiet heroism of McAllen’s Border Patrol agents whom she describes as “merciful and compassionate.”

But as a mother and community member herself, rhetoric on the issue is important, and she is careful in talking to the media.

“I know that there have been people in my party in the past that had been a little too far to the right on rhetoric, where they sound like they don’t care about individuals,” Peña-Garza said.

“I care about all people no matter where you’re from, but at the same time we’re talking about U-S-of-A, we’re talking about border security, we’re talking about what’s best for people.”

Next to “Ursula,” Ramon Montoya imagines his own family coming to McAllen at a different moment in time.

“We have so many examples in our world’s history where people have been victim to these kinds of injustices, and now we’re the ones causing the harm,” Montoya said. “I choose to believe that we’re better than this.”

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