Othal Brand, Jr., general manager and president of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3, will give his unique perspective on immigration and border security at a town hall debate broadcast live on CBS 4 News tonight.
Brand has been asked to speak at the town hall meeting for three reasons. He has experience working in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. His water district’s land and property on the Rio Grande was used heavily by drug smugglers until he installed cameras, erected barriers, and built a boat ramp for Border Patrol. And, a faith-based hostel he oversees in Harlingen looks after hundreds of undocumented boys aged 16 and under.
“I am looking forward to the town hall meeting. I think I can offer a unique experience. I hope the debate will be informative for viewers,” said Brand, who was asked to testify on border security and immigration at a U.S. Senate committee hearing last year.
Griffin and Brand, a large vegetable and fruit growing and packing company, operated in Central America for 20 years. It was started by Brand, Jr.’s father, the late Othal Brand, who served as mayor of McAllen for 20 years. “We grew crops in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for 20 years. I would live there for four months at a time. In the early 1980s those countries reminded me of Mexico in the 1950s. I traveled throughout Mexico with my father as a young boy,” Brand said.
Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are where most of the undocumented immigrants came from during the “surge” of crossings in the summer of 2014.
Brand learned first-hand about the impact of undocumented immigrants crossing the Rio Grande when he became general manager of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3. The water district owns 45 acres of land on the Rio Grande on the outskirts of Hidalgo. It supplies drinking water to the cities of Hidalgo and McAllen.
“The first time I went down there to see the men in the workshop a van came zooming by at, I swear, 100 miles an hour. Two minutes later it zoomed straight back out, right past the workers outside the workshop. I said, what was that? They said, ‘Well, it is either drugs or people.’ I said, illegals? They said, ‘Yes.’ Well, how often does that happen, I asked? They said, ‘Every day.’ Well, why haven’t you called Border Patrol, I asked. ‘Mr. Brand, we are not going to call Border Patrol. If those people find out that we called, what is going to happen to us?’ they said,” Brand recalled.
“Right then, I said to myself, that is not how you live in America. You do not live that way. I told myself, we are going to figure out a way to make this just as safe as my neighborhood. It has taken me years to figure out how to do that.”
Brand said the first thing he did was put in a lot of lighting. “The whole place was lit up like a Christmas tree. We had lighting everywhere. All I discovered was that it made it easier for the drug runners. They could see more easily. It did not help at all. That was worthless. So, I put up cameras and gave them to Border Patrol. That helped tremendously.”
Brand said there were many hair-raising experiences with what Border Patrol calls splash downs.
“A splash down is when a load of illegal drugs is going out and the gangs get detected and they race back across the river, splashing down in the river and pulling their drugs out. They would call ahead of time and say, we are coming back, get a bunch of guys down there. When they hit the water about eight or ten guys would come out of the brush from the other side, take all the bundles out and then the car would sink.”
Brand said that when he erected Jersey barriers on the embankment the splash downs stopped. The last time it was attempted a car crashed into a Jersey barrier, flipped over and one of the gang members was killed.
Later, Brand and the water district erected a boat ramp and offered it to Border Patrol.
“They did not have a ramp south of Anzalduas Dam. Now, they are building four new boat ramps. I would like to think my testimony, in Washington, D.C., last year, made a difference, when I said that the weakest link is marine. That is when the cartels are at their most vulnerable, when they are wading through the water,” Brand said.
“We have been able to help Border Patrol in a way they could not help ourselves. And they have been able to help us in a way we could not help ourselves. Together, we were able to do it and make it work, provide real border security.”
Asked what he thought of the border wall, Brand said: “The border wall costs $2,00 a linear foot and $10 million a mile. We only have 27 miles of wall between Brownsville and Rio Grande City and 225 miles of river. So, the border wall accounts for only ten percent. There are areas where you do not need a wall. You need it in the urban areas, where those crossing can easily hide. Border Patrol prefers boots on the ground because they can easily deploy them to the hot spots. There is no one solution. It has to be a combination of boots on the ground, technology, air and marine. We need them all.”
Brand’s work in providing shelter for young undocumented boys has been facilitated through the Baptist Child and Family Services program. His center in Harlingen has been operating for nine years and is home to an average of 300 boys at any one time. The number was much higher during the “surge” in the summer of 2014.
“We are a faith-based organization that facilitates the processing of boys aged 16 and younger, undocumented, coming into the United States. The boys are usually there for 45 to 60 days. Then they are processed and sent to be with their families across the United States. We work with Health & Human Services and Office of Refugee Resettlement,” Brand said.
“Other states across the country have not wanted to house these young people but Texas has more empathy. We have been able to have a close up look at who these children are. The opportunity we have is to reach them in a more serious way than just a worldly way. It has been a great experience to learn and understand and grasp all the different dynamics involved in immigration. We have had an opportunity over the year to give out tens of thousands of bibles.”
Asked what he might say at the town hall meeting, Brand said: “People need to understand that we are a compassionate nation, that we do empathize with the situation in the rest of the world. There is a way to help but it has to be organized, it has to be in a structured manner, whereby people come here in a legal manner.
“I like what President Kennedy did in pushing the Peace Corps. This was about taking what we knew, what we had and giving that to people across the world. That, along with the faith-based organizations, is what America is good at. We are willing to go out and help. That is what we need to do. We need more of that, to help other nations, rather than bring millions of people into our country.”
The CBS 4 News town hall debate on immigration takes place at the Boggus Ford Events Center in Pharr, starting at 6 p.m. this evening. It ends at 7:30 p.m. It is being hosted by Emmy-winning journalist Mark Hyman. He will take questions from the live audience and social media throughout the discussion. The hashtag is #YourVoiceYourFuture.
Seating will be first-come, first-serve, but guests may RSVP on Facebook or by calling (956) 366-4422.
In addition to Brand, the other panelists are Efren Olivares, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, Dani Marrero Hi, an immigration and LGBTQ rights activist who co-founded Aqui Estamos RGV, and Eric Garza, Texas coordinator for the Libre Initiative. Click here for more details.
Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian has an undocumented immigrant research project underway with Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3.