It was still dark when we arrived at the Hidalgo house at around 6 a.m. I turned the outside light on and there on the porch was a pair of boy’s sneakers I did not recognize. “These are not Alan’s,” I said to my wife.
Then, there was a stir. In the dark a boy slowly got up off the porch and said, in Spanish, “Please can you help?” He was sleeping on the floor and had left his sneakers by the door. His name was Ángel. He was 13 years and from Honduras. “Please help me. I am lost,” he said.
The boy had crossed the river the day before but could not go past the Border Wall. “I do not know where I am? Can you call immigration?” Ángel said, in Spanish.
Ángel knew that if “Immigration” picked him up he would be okay. For undocumented immigrants from the Central American nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, things are relatively easy. We called Tomás, the foreman of the Water District, and he called Border Patrol. After a while, an agent came over and booked Ángel into a local Border Patrol compound. Eventually, he will get united with a family member or friend in the U.S. and he might be allowed to stay.
This incident happened in the latter half of 2014 when river crossings by Central American mothers and children were at their peak. Hundreds appeared to be crossing every day. Not so much at the Water District, but certainly a few miles up the Rio Grande at Anzalduas Park. Crossings have slowed since then – although rarely a day goes by without a Border Patrol helicopter hovering noisily above.
For undocumented immigrants from Mexico, it is a different story. If they get caught by Border Patrol they are going to get sent back straight away. Two men from Mexico, Ramón and José, took their chances. They were crouched under a tree just yards from the house. They asked for a Coke. Border Patrol agents tell us we are only allowed to offer immigrants water, but as they asked I gave the immigrants a Coke anyway. I told them they would most likely get caught because there is no brush on the other side of the Border Wall. Sure enough they did. I drove down to Whataburger, just a mile to the south next to the Hidalgo International Bridge. On the way back I saw Ramón and José by the side of the road. They were being picked up by a Hidalgo policeman in a patrol car. I knew Border Patrol would not be far behind.
I had always wondered what it was like to live on the other side of the Border Wall. I had written extensively about the Wall when it was first erected and had interviewed Eliose Tamez, whose land near Brownsville had been dissected by the Border Wall. She fought valiantly in the courts to stop her land from being condemned, but to no avail. And then there was the Taylor clan in Cameron County (no relation, as far as I can tell). They also found themselves living “on the Mexican side” once the Border Wall was built.
The reason there is a Mexican side of the Border Wall, by the way, is because the fencing is not erected directly beside the Rio Grande. A bi-national law prevents the U.S., or Mexico for that matter, from building anything that impedes the flow of the River. So, the Wall in the low-lying Rio Grande Valley is built on the levees. These can be half a mile from the River.
My opportunity to sample life on “the Mexican side of the Border Wall” came by accident. I had heard that another media outlet had expressed an interest in “renting” out an empty house owned by Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3 in order to do research on undocumented immigrants. I asked the district manager if it was available. I said it would be a great place to document life on the Border, to interview immigrants as they crossed the river. “It’s yours, for free; we can’t get anyone to live there. People think it is dangerous,” said Othal Brand, Jr., the Water District manager. “We need someone there, on our property, to make sure our buildings and vehicles do not get damaged by the drug smugglers at night.”
So, a trade of sorts was agreed. I would have free access to the property, and a comfortable, three-bedroom, two-bathroom, wooden structure that could be moved in the event of the River breaking its banks. I would have the ability to go wherever I want on the property, and be given the number to the keypad that opens the Border Wall gate. I could do all the research I wanted and interview whomever I wanted. In return, I would be, in essence, a security guard, reporting any disturbances.
The last family that lived at 1144 International Boulevard, Hidalgo, Texas, had moved out when they saw alligators swimming in the River. That was not going to deter me. I took a chance that the alligators would stay in the River and, besides, there was an alarm in the house that triggered an alert to the office of the Hidalgo Police Department.
The other advantage of being there was that it was near to our main home in Reynosa. The Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge is just a mile to the south. We can move between the two homes in less than 15 minutes, if there is no line at the bridge.
Some of the stories I have picked up living on the River have been heart-wrenching. Juanita, 29 years of age, a single mother from Acapulco, Mexico, had stayed in a safe house full of migrants in Reynosa for six days before the Coyotes said it was time to cross the River. She was hoping to reach her aunt, who lives in Washington, Texas. She said she had to work in the U.S. because her sick mother and son depended on her. She was looking forward to finding work and sending money home each week. Juanita had inured her leg when she fell in the brush and was concerned she would not be able to run, should “La Migra” seek to capture her.
Isela was 13 years of age and had traveled north from Guerrero, Mexico. She was hoping to reunite with her mother, who lived and worked in Los Angeles. Isela had been living with her grandmother for the past ten years. Her mother left to find work in the U.S. when Isela was three years of age. She said her grandmother had told her to travel north, to find her mother because she was too sick to look after her any more. Isela said she had crossed the River with some other immigrants but had lost her way when chased by Border Patrol. The amazing thing about Isela was that she had a permanent smile on her face. She was confident she would be able to reach her mother.
In the main, the immigrants that have come to the house have said the Coyotes treated them humanely and had escorted the immigrants across Mexico without exploiting them. Yes, it can cost $5,000 a trip, but the immigrants we have interviewed did not come to any harm from those escorting them.
Irma, had traveled north from Guatemala. She said she had been treated well by the Coyotes when she and four children, two boys, aged 14 and ten and two girls, aged seven and five, interrupted a BBQ we were having in the back garden. She said she felt safe all the way north. She and the kids waited about 45 minutes for Border Patrol to arrive and pick them up. They were hoping to be united with a relative in Chicago.
Pedro, a 15-year-old boy from El Salvador, said he had been separated from his uncle when his uncle decided to climb the Border Wall. He said he was hoping to reach his father, who lived and worked in New Jersey. Pedro said he and his uncle had fled their homeland because of the violence. He said his family had been threatened by gangs. He said it was imperative he found his Dad. He wanted to go to work in New Jersey so he could send money home to his family. He said he and his uncle paid $5,000 each to the Coyotes.
Maricela was 25 years of age and had traveled north from Puebla, Mexico. She said she had spent seven days in Reynosa waiting to cross the River. She said she was hoping to get to Houston, where her uncle lived. She said she had left two children behind in Puebla with her mother. She said she was hoping to earn some money in Houston and then return home to Puebla.
Diana was 34 years of age, from Guanajuato, Mexico. She said she had waited 21 days in Reynosa, waiting for a coyote to bring her across the River. She said she had been let down by the Coyote because he had promised he would take her by car to a safe house just across the River. That had not happened. She wanted to know how to get around the Border Wall.
If the gate to the Water District is open, undocumented immigrants try their luck walking through it. But, there is a police camera on a tower at the bottom of the driveway on the other side. Most try to cross with wooden ladders that have been brought across by smugglers. If the district workers find the ladders they break them up. Often one finds broken ladders lying on the ground next to the workers’ shed.
We had a professor friend from Houston stay with us one time and on a walk around the property he noticed a nondescript ladder on the ground. He said it deserves to be in a local museum and demanded I get it through the gate. “How is that possible,” I asked, “when there are cameras everywhere.”
Our two-year lease deal at the Hidalgo property is coming to an end now and I have a lot of material for an interactive series. Great stories and photos about living next to the brush; watching the raccoons raid our trash bin at night; seeing a dog chase a pack of javelinas around the field and then two of the leaders of the pack turning around and chasing the dog. In other circumstances it really could be a very tranquil place. I have not witnessed any of the shootings the Irrigation District workers say happened shortly before we arrived, but I did get one death threat from someone saying he knew where I lived.
When I moved in I was told it was the most dangerous house in Hidalgo. But, with so many law enforcement officers on patrol I really think it is the safest. Because, you see, it is not just me the Irrigation District allowed in for free. They allowed Border Patrol, Texas Game Wardens, and, on occasion, the National Guard, to set up base. I don’t think there is another Irrigation District in the Valley that has been so obliging to law enforcement. The Water District even built a boat ramp for the agencies to use.
I would not want this story to paint a picture of an open border where anyone can cross. Far from it. The Irrigation District workers feel a lot safer now. Because of the Border Patrol cars driving back and forth all the time, and because of all the cameras, they feel secure. This they have told me. Judging by the helicopter activity, Border Patrol is much busier a few miles upriver. I can say in all honesty that life is more dangerous in Reynosa. But that is another story.
Editor’s Note: This is the first a series of interactive stories about Life Behind the Mexican Side of the Border Wall. Other episodes will be published in the weeks and months ahead. Reporter Esmeralda Torres and editor Dayna Reyes contributed to his story.