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Editor’s Note: Academics Antonio N. Zavaleta and Mitchell A. Kaplan have penned a 8,000-word essay titled Immigrant Caging on the Texas-Mexico Border. 


BROWNSVILLE, RGV – The Rio Grande Valley consists of the four-southeasternmost counties in Texas, located on the border with Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Valley, as it is called, is arguably the poorest region in the United States, and is characterized by continuing institutionalization as described by Paasi, in his concept of Third Space.

Thus, the Valley is an ever-evolving region plagued by illegal immigration, a high rate of population growth marked by poverty and dominated by an irredentist social system in which illegal immigrants constitute a permanent under-class (Acevedo-Arispe, 2004).

From 2008 to 2014, the United States experienced an unprecedented rise in undocumented immigration along the Texas-Mexico border. This increase led to the declaration of a humanitarian crisis at the border in 2014 (USBP: US Border Patrol Southwest Border Apprehensions by Sector FY2018, 2018).

Beginning in 2012, illegal immigration from Central America peaked toward the termination of the Obama administration. Central Americans are said to have feared changes in immigration law and policy to be brought by the next administration and rightfully so. Illegal immigration waned shortly after the presidential election, only to increase again in 2016 and that trend continues through 2018.

Dr. Tony Zavaleta, Ph.D.

During the same period, approximately 87,000 inadmissibles were “turned back” from attempted bridge crossings. Numerous and diverse reasons mostly surround the so-called sealing of the southern border of the United States resulting from anticipated massive changes in immigration law followed by the deportation of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants living in country. All illegal immigration in the Rio Grande Valley sector negatively impacts the socioeconomic wellbeing of the region.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas Border Patrol sector witnessed the highest-ever influx of illegal immigration in the ten-year period 2008 to 2018. The total number of illegal immigrants apprehended and or deemed inadmissible attempting to enter the United States in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, reached a high point of 486,651 in 2014, has remained at near 400,000 for every year since. The crush of illegal immigration and the uncertainty of immigration law reform may push the number of total apprehensions for 2018 over the 500,000-mark (The McAllen Monitor, 2018).

Additionally, the Rio Grande Sector in Texas continues to demonstrate the highest numbers for “apprehensions” and “inadmissibles” along the 2,000-mile long U.S.-Mexico border.

Individuals detained at the border’s international bridges and “turned back” are categorized as inadmissibles while individuals actually arrested attempting a river crossing between bridges or who have already entered the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas are counted as apprehensions.

The entire border region has become a primary entry point into the United States for a burgeoning refugee population of thousands of undocumented immigrants fleeing Central America and who have made the perilous journey across Mexico in a desperate attempt to enter the United States (Bialik, 2017).

Dr. Mitchell A. Kaplan, Ph.D.

The largest cohort of undocumented arrivals originates in the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador the region known as the Northern Triangle (U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Statistics and Summaries, Fiscal Years 1925-2015, 2016). Theremainder of new arrivals emanates from Mexico, even though Mexican immigration is now significantly reduced from previous years.

Since 2012, there has been a significant rise in illegal immigration to the United States from Central America adding to the 3 million Northern Triangle immigrants who were already living and working in the U.S. in 2015. It is believed that more than half of the immigrants residing in the United States are illegal.

Approximately one million of the illegal immigrants have been designated as DREAMERS and approximately 800,000 of those have been designated as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protection Status (TPS) recipients. Dreamers are children and young adults brought to the United States illegally by their illegal immigrant parents or guardians, younger than 31 years of age on June 15, 2012 and who entered the United States before the age of 16 and have lived in the United States continuously since 2007.

Immigrants from the three nations of the Northern Triangle of Central America living in the United States play a major role as contributors to the national economies of their homelands. The Northern Triangle countries of Central America are currently responsible for the remission of an estimated $16 billion in income earned in the United States and sent to their home countries each year. The breakdown of the income distribution by country is as follows:

  • Guatemalan immigrants contribute an estimated $8 billion of their income earned in the U.S. to the sustainability of the local economy of their native country annually accounting for 11 percent of the total economic output of Guatemala.
  • Salvadoran immigrants contribute an estimated $5 billion of their U.S. income to the sustainability of the local economy of their native country, which accounts for 17 percent of the total economic output of El Salvador.
  • Hondurans contribute an estimated $4 billion of their income to the sustainability of the local economy of their native country, which translates to 18 percent of the total economic output of Honduras.

These overwhelming numbers make it abundantly clear that illegal immigrants living and working in the United States play not only a significant role in the U.S. economy but also critical roles in the economies of their home countries.

In 2014, 115,000 new immigrants arrived in the United States from the Northern Triangle, doubling the 60,000 who arrived in 2011 with a similar number every year since. These numbers are not to be confused with Border Patrol apprehensions.  In fact, demographic statistics from the Pew Research Center indicate that the total number of immigrant arrivals to the United States from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador rose by 25 percent between 2007-2015, while the number of Mexican immigrant arrivals fell by six percent during the same period (Cohn & D’Vera, 2017).

For decades, millions of Mexicans crossed into the U.S. in one of the largest human mass migrations in modern history. However, stricter immigration enforcement and greater economic opportunities in Mexico have reversed the trend.  U.S. government immigration statistics indicate a downturn in the number of undocumented Mexicans living illegally in the United States. More than one million Mexicans returned to Mexico from the United States between 2009 and 2014. Failing economic opportunity in the U.S. combined with the crackdown on illegal immigration has caused undocumented Mexicans to return to their homes in Mexico and to stay.

These factors are responsible for the substantial decline in the number of new Mexican arrivals and have created a tremendous need for workers in the United States increasing opportunity for arriving Central Americans.

Despite the trend in declining Mexican immigration, Central American immigrants and especially, unaccompanied children from Central America are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in record numbers. Comparing the period May 2017 to May 2018, the number of family units arriving at the border increased by 435 percent and the number of unaccompanied children increased by 329 percent (USCPB Southwest Border Migration FY2018, 2018).

By all accounts, apprehensions in 2017 were greater than in 2016 and 2018 promises to be even greater, indicating a continuing trend in the increase of illegal immigration to the United States. During the period, January 20 to September 20 of 2017, ICE reported 111,000 illegal immigrant arrests in the United States, representing a 42 percent increase over 2016.

Ninety-eight percent of these were apprehendedat the southern border of Texas.  Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials indicate that in 2017, federal authorities arrested at least 1,000 persons per day coming across the Texas-Mexico border (Torbati, 2017). These numbers have a serious impact on the growth and development of the Rio Grande Valley.

The people of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are affected by both push and pull factors promoting their migration. Conditions in El Salvador promoting out migration are particularly disturbing. Gang wars between the Mara-Salvatrucha and Barrio-18 have led to the world’s highest murder rate for people under the age of 19, about 1.5 per day. The crime and murder rates in Honduras and Guatemala are similar. Crime and extreme poverty in Central America have engendered a steady of stream of immigrants out of Central America heading for the U.S.-Mexico border. Central American youth and women are particularly susceptible to violence. As a result, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 17,512 unaccompanied Salvadoran minors in 2016 continuing the humanitarian crisis of 2014.

The total number of unaccompanied children fleeing Central America and apprehended in 2017 in the Rio Grande sector was 18,974. The number for the first six months of 2018 has reached 14,846 (USCBP Border Patrol Southwest Border Apprehensions by Sector FY2018, 2018). Additionally, one-third of the unaccompanied children traveling to the border are young girls who have been targeted by gangs for abduction, rape and, murder.

The record number of illegal immigrants arriving in 2014, the peak year, was spurred by the fact that U.S. Immigration Officials were directed not to deport approximately 550,000 illegal immigrants by granting them temporary amnesty during the Obama administration. Most Central Americans were hopeful the trend would continue. In fact, the Trump administration has reversed all immigration policies, which favored immigration to the United States.

Recently released U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) statistics indicate that in 2017 the first year of the Trump administration, 226,000 illegal immigrants were deported from the United States and the trend has increased in recent months.

The number of daily apprehensions on the southern border is so massive that Border Patrol agents have reinitiated a catch-and-release policy since shelter does not exist to support the growing numbers of illegal aliens, especially children apprehended daily. Additionally, applications and requests for asylum are not easily honored.

The Rio Grande Valley Sector leads the other eight southwest Border Patrol sectors in apprehensions. The three Texas border sectors, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Laredo, and El Paso, account for approximately half of all southwest border apprehensions (Price, 2017).

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) reports that the majority of apprehensions occur in the Rio Grande Valley Sector of Texas. This is especially a problem for Texas, which withstands the worst of this influx. The massive influx of illegal immigrants is stressing the schools and health care systems, and is costly for taxpayers, creating a major public safety issues (Center for Immigration Studies, 2017).

Many thousands of illegal immigrants remain along the Texas border taking up residence in border colonias and barrios. A colonia is a rural unincorporated shanty settlement lacking minimal resources while a blighted barrio is an urban neighborhood usually marked by crowding, crime, and poverty.

The summer of 2014 witnessed a historicpeak in the growingimmigrant population along the border especially the subpopulations ofunaccompanied children and single-parent families with small children this trend has continued through 2018.

The continued in-migration of mothers and children is so significant that the U.S. Federal government has recently approved the deterrent to immigration of separating families at the border. That is, separating children from their mothers. As of May 2018, children are being detained in separate detention facilities from their mothers. This scare tactic sends parents to detention facilities in search of their children who remain in separate protective facilities often hundreds of miles from their detained parents (Delk, 2017).

The practice of separating children from their mothers became a national issue in the May of 2018, with the enactment of a “zero tolerance” policy. With increasing numbers of families attempting to enter the United States, holding facilities have multiplied incarcerating 2,000 children and youth separated from their parents at the border creating a national scandal. Between April and June 2018, approximately 2,000 minor children traveling with their adult guardians and parents were separated and placed in detention centers. This federal policy precipitated the humanitarian crisis of 2018 (DHS: 2,000 children separated from parents at border, 2018). This short-lived policy was suspended due to public outrage in the Summer of 2018.

Federal statistics indicate that more than 10,000 children are currently in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), (NPR, DHS: Nearly 2,000 children separated from adults at border in 6 weeks, 2018). ORR currently operates 100 shelters in 14 states.

During this same period, the summer of 2018, the United States ImmigrationService reports an exponential increase of more than 20,000 illegal immigrant apprehensions per month over previous years (U.S.Customs and Border Protection, Statistics and Summaries, 1925-2015, 2016).

The continued entry of unaccompanied children has posed a complex legal and moral dilemma for federal immigration and homeland security authorities (U.S. Customs and Border Protection Statistics and Summaries, Enacted Border Patrol Budget by Fiscal Year, 2018).

The Trump administration has initiated policies of sweeping deportations and of separating children from their parents and guardians at the border, denying immigrant’s request for asylum and by requiring those scheduled for an immigration hearing to remain within the Rio Grande Valley.

Immigrants Detained on the South Texas Border

Border researchers have studied the result of concentrating immigrants into limited spaces due to heavy immigration enforcement and lack of facilities. This condition which is prevalent on the border is known as “caging” and promotes the concentration of immigrants in the poverty of barrios and colonias.

“Immigration enforcement has led to a “caging effect” over the past two decades which has disrupted seasonal migration flows, prohibited familial and social ties to the United States, and decreased the probability of returning to Mexico and Central America once in the United States. The development of strong family and other ties to the United States contributes to a greater resolve to return post-deportation.” (Slack, Martinez, Whiteford, and Peiffer, 2015).

Most persons who take interest inillegal immigration, includinglawmakersand the media have failed to acknowledge that the actual crisis created by illegal immigration in South Texas is the proliferation of internal colonies of destitute immigrant poor in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the border with Mexico (Gass, 2018).

Hapless immigrants are packed into deplorable living conditions and are residentially segregated in border colonias, living lives of quiet desperation, illegal immigrant families live in fear of deportation (Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, 2016).

The pent-up aggregation of poor immigrant populations living under wretched and deplorable social conditions in marginalized neighborhoods represents a legitimate humanitarian crisis. The increasing pressure of illegal immigrants places mounting social pressure on an already overburdened and woefully underfunded system of social services in the region.

The lack of economic funding for vital services provided by community-based social institutions such as social-service agencies, criminal justice agencies, healthcare and educational facilities, places the implementation of support services for illegal immigrants out of reach for most.

Extreme poverty characterizes the communities in which most colonia immigrants reside. Uncertainty and a general feeling of hopelessness and despair is referred to in the social science literature as the Neighborhood Effect (Brookings Institution, 2014).

Undocumented immigrants residing in these communities live in constant fear of arrest and deportation by U.S. Immigration authorities. The majority of poor immigrant children are malnourished and sickly resulting from their illegal immigration status, prevents parents from working or receiving government benefits such as healthcare, food-stamps or subsidized housing (Hicken et al., 2011).

The increased presence of U.S. Border Patrol and other federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies patrolling the streets and rural roads of the Lower Rio Grande Valley has placed mounting pressure on undocumented immigrants living clindestingly in their colonia-based homes where they have a sense of security.

Illegal immigrants have little choice but to settle primarily in the urban barrios and rural colonias of the Lower Rio Grande Valley(Harrison, 2011). The mounting illegal immigrant presence along the borderspurred a significant increase in law enforcement along the lower border. In 2000, there were fewer than 9,000 Customs and Border Patrol agents patrolling the border, by 2010, the number had increased to close to 23,000 (Gomez, Alan, Jack Gillum, & Kevin Johnson 2011).

The critical factors producing the “caging” effect are the primary thesis of this article (Grubenand Payan, 2004). Illegal immigrants are said to be “caged” when they are neither able to move north of the frontier zone (approximately 100 miles) into the United States nor south of the border or to returnto their countries of origin after entering the United States illegally.

Illegal Immigration and Militarization

Research conducted by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reveals that safety concerns associated with fear of harsh social conditions in their native countries are one of the primary social determinants that motivate parents to send their unaccompanied child minors to cross the border illegally seeking asylum (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services webpage, 2018).

For many others, the promise of economic opportunity and reunification with family members already settled in the United States are deciding factors motivating their efforts to make the treacherous journey across Mexico to the Texas border (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees webpage, 2018).

Whatever the reasons for the increase in this unaccompanied child crisis, one thing is clear, U.S. government officials must work in close collaboration with their counterparts in the home countries of immigrants’ to develop appropriate strategies for stemming the massive tide of people fleeing Central America. Unknown to them, illegal immigrants face uncertain outcomes and the potential for a lifetime of poverty as the reward for their perilous journey and illegal entry into the United States (Op.cit, 2018).

Tangible evidence of the negative impact of socioeconomic changes in the Lower Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas can be seen in increasing levels of extreme poverty among the undocumented-immigrant population residing in rural colonias and urban barrios. Increases in illegal immigration have also resulted in a heightened presence of law-enforcement at all levels along the border (Congressional Research Service Report, Mexican Migration to the United States: Policy and Trends, 2012).

In 2017, government figures reported that illegal immigration rose more than 20 percent above that reported in 2016. A comparison of immigration statistics from the period betweenJune 2016 and July 2017 indicates a 23 percent spike in the number of newly arrived single undocumented adults atborder crossings. Additionally, there was a 27 percent rise in the number of unaccompaniedchildren and a 46 percent increase in the number of undocumented immigrantfamilies seeking asylum, although a simple request for asylum no longer grants automatic asylum for illegal immigrants (Washington Times, 2017).

Meanwhile, immigration courts operate at full capacity,even though the number of deportations is spiking. Between February and July 2017, immigration court officials ordered50,000 deportations of illegal aliens, a figure representing a 28 percent increase over the same period in 2016. However, these illegal immigrant deportation numbers are still lower than the peak year of 2014 (Washington Post, 2017).

Detained illegal immigrants spend an exorbitant amount of time in deportation centers while waiting for immigration hearings. At the beginning of 2017, 384 federal-immigration judges heard cases with an average wait time of 665 days (almost twoyears) for non-detained immigrants and 71 days for incarcerated immigrants. Unaccompanied minors and families comprise the non-detained category. In the LowerRio Grande Valley, it is not uncommon for immigration-court judges to preside over an average of 75 to 90 cases daily nowhere near the number necessary to defray the pent-up load of detainees (McAllen Monitor, 2017).

The National Immigration Law Centerbelieves that the government’s goal is to make life so unbearable for illegal immigrants that they will voluntarily choose to self-deport or to not leave their homes. Others say that this is not the case and that immigrants are waiting, digging-in and hiding in plain-sight in Valley colonias. Many believe that the government’s strategy is to instill fear creating a lasting effect on immigrants and especially their children (U.S. Customs and Border Protection Southwest Border Immigration report, 2017).

Early in 2017, immigration officers stepped up the arrest of illegal immigrants by 33 percent including the arrest of thousands of peaceful non-criminal immigrants. Additionally, the government vowed to deport the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living established lives in the United States.

As a result, of increased immigrant enforcement illegal immigrants living in the coloniasof the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas fear to venture out of their homes, to go to the store or to send their children to school. (Kopan CNN, 2017).

Heightened immigration enforcement has resulted in illegal immigrants living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley to abandon any hope of returning to their homes abroad or any notion of moving north and into the United States. Because the immigrant presence on the border has come under increased scrutiny, they have no choice but to live in obscurity and isolation in rural colonias and urban barrios.

The administration has also widened its crackdown on undocumented parents living in the United States attempting to reunite with their unaccompanied children detained on the border. Thus, the illegal immigrant crackdown of 2018 has significantly driven immigrants living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley deeper into the shadows of Valley colonias.

These combined efforts have substantially increased the apprehension of undocumented immigrant parents who have come to the Lower Rio Grande Valley from the north seeking to claim their unaccompanied children held in detention. Immigrant children are arriving at the border by the thousands and are assignedto Valley shelters and detention centers for undetermined lengths of time (Mother Jones, 2017).

Even more egregious is the plan to press felony charges against parents suspected of hiring cartel smugglers to cross their children into the United States. Fear leads parents to delay reclaiming their children caged in detention centers for fear of their deportation. This results in traumatized children remaining in immigrant detention centers for longer durations. Many hundreds of unaccompanied children are detainedin detention facilities along the South Texas border with plans for additional facilities to be built (Greene & Mazon, 2011).

It is important to note that less than half of the persons entering the United States are actually apprehendedat the border. Many thousands are successfully smuggled across the border and into networks of temporary stash houses throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley and beyond. The identification and apprehension of illegal immigrants at stash houses in the Rio Grande Valley increased 84 percent from 2017 to 2018.  Smugglers charge upward of $4,000 to transport a single child out of the Valley and into the interior of the United States (New York Times, 2017). The apprehension of tractor-trailers attempting to move immigrants northward from the Valley increased by 197 percent from 2017 to 2018.

Most safe houses are deeply hiddenin impoverished pockets of Valleycolonias and barrios (Reagan, Brownsville Herald, 2018). These clandestine locations serve as staging areas before attempts are made to transport illegal immigrants north of the Border Patrol check-points (Associated Press, 2017). The Border Patrol maintains 34 interior checkpoints up to 100 miles north of the border.


DREAMERS are children and adolescents who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents under the age of 16, were under 31 years of age as of June 15, 2012,and have continuously resided in the U.S. from June 15, 2007,to the present. DACA recipients are those DREAMERS who applied for and received deferred action that allows them to work or go to school and delay deportation for up to two years. DREAMERS have an opportunity to receive protective status through a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The current administration attempted plans to terminate the DACA protection and to deport all DREAMERS(Bersin, 2011). While earmarked for termination and deportation, Federal Judges have put a hold on any disruption of DACA until Congress has a chance to debate new immigration legislation.

Although the DACA program is not a viable pathway to legal residency or citizenship, it does provide undocumented youth with temporary protection from deportation, giving them a two-year renewable work-authorization visa. DACA visas allow participants to become legally employed in the U.S. labor force, open bank accounts, qualify for drivers’ licenses and credit cards and provide them with an opportunity to attend an American college or university foratwo-year period.

There are hundreds of DACA recipients living in the Rio Grande Valley and research provides clear indications that DACA has transformed the lives of thousands of undocumented immigrants in many positive ways. These are of significant benefit to the economy of the nation, especially the Lower Rio Grande Valley. DACA is one of a limited number of pathways immigrants have to climb out of a life of poverty (Perryman, 2017).

Participation in DACA has played a major role in shaping the life-chances for a broad spectrum of the young-adult-immigrant population across the nation, including in the Lower Rio Grande Valley region of Texas.The program has been instrumentalin creating new pathways to higher education, scholarship opportunities, and professional training leading to permanent employment, greater stability, higher pay, and the opportunity to achieve economic and social mobility in American society (The Economist, 2016 & The Politico, 2017).

Overall, DACA has resulted in raising the socioeconomic status ofall immigrants, legal and illegal. Additionally, economists find that DACA recipients have higher incomes and greater financial stability increasinghousehold economic power in local economies (Brannon, 2017).

The U.S.-Mexico border region in general and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, in particular,is arguably the poorest region of the United States. Contributing to this is the fact that it has the highest percentage of undocumented families many of which are mixed-families comprisedof both legal and illegal immigrants.

The mass deportation of gainfully employed DACA family members will resultin a significant blow to the economy of the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and a disruption in the lives of thousandsof marginalized families who currently reside in south Texas.

Advocates of immigration reform in the United States have called upon the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to establish clear and efficient guidelines for the process of implementing deportation prosecution against immigrants. However, so far, this has not happened,and the promised-deportation campaign of Central American and Mexican immigrants had not begun in full force as of August 2018 (, 2018). The result is a growing “caged” population of isolated illegals; most ofwhom disappear into the coloniasand low-incomeneighborhoods of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Additionally, the number of border colonias continues to grow. Texas now reports the existence of 2,300 coloniasalong the border; mostly located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and most new coloniaresidents are undocumented immigrants.

A critical factor of importance to the evolving undocumentedimmigration dynamic along the U.S.-Mexico border is the deterioratingsocial and economic conditions immigrant families face in the United States, particularly those who reside in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

The average number of families living in poverty in Texas border counties exceeds that of all the other countiesin the state if not the nation. (Nutrition Intervention and Research Institute, University of Texas School of Public Health, 2007).The debilitating effects of institutionalized poverty upon the lives of immigrants in the Valley are self-evident and exacerbatedby a plethora of less-than-desirable conditions influencing the overall low socioeconomic status of the area.

Caging and Neighborhood Effects

A 2015 analysis, suggested thatthe Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas continues to experience a downward socioeconomic spiral toward the creation of an internal colony or development as a permanent holding area for immigrants and the poor. Illegal immigrants who have crossed the Texas-Mexico border are unable to move northward out of the Valley and are hesitant or unable to return to their countries of origin. In the study of immigration and settlement scholars refer to this phenomenon as the “caging effect.”

It is essential to understand that the “caging effect,” is a metaphor infering that once in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, undocumented immigrants are forced to live in the shadows and are effectively in a “cage” that blocks them from leaving, in that they are unwilling or unable to return to Mexico or Central America.Furthermore, the reality of the “cagingeffect” serves as an incentive in the development of a smuggling industry moving immigrants across the river and northward out of the Valley and into the rest of the country (Reagan, Brownsville Herald, 2018).

Combined with the “Caging Effect” is the “Neighborhood Effect,” found in large urban centers that includes dilapidated housing structures, abandoned cars and empty residential lots filled with trash and other debris, unsupervised children, prostitution and the pervasive use of drugs which are all standard features of Valley colonias and urban barrios (Parry, 2012).

Colonias are rural unincorporated and unimproved clusters of shanty settlements, created by unscrupulous landowners and developers.Colonias are not equipped with electricity, running water, sanitary sewer, or drainage; they do not have paved streets or sidewalks and do not appear on the traditionalschool bus routes (Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, 2015).

Hundreds of colonias contain undocumented immigrant populations referred to as paracaidistas or parachutists because the immigrants arrive in border communities by merely “dropping-in” mimicking the infamous slums in Latin America.

Interestingly, the creation of poor informal settlements is a border phenomenon mounting on the Mexican side of the border as well as in Texas. In-migration from the interior of Mexico and Central American countries has created abject poverty and disenfranchised populations contained in Mexican border communities from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. In Mexican municipiosor counties, poor immigrant enclaves often cluster in or around communal farm settlements called ejidos, which encircle metropolitan border towns along the river.

These dire conditions have also taken a heavy toll upon the mental-health status of immigrants; producing a high incidence of behavioral problems, substance abuse, alcoholism and all forms of stress-relatedemotional conditions brought on by heightened feelings of social isolation, worthlessness, and despair (Aroian, 1993).

The behavioral health of children separated from their parents’ unaccompanied and abandoned children is negatively impacted by loneliness, as they are isolated from loved ones; compounded by the inability to understand the cause of their incarceration.

Spillover Violence

Recent years have seen dramatic increases in violence along the border promulgated by warring factions of drug cartels combined with spillover-violence onthe Texas side of the border. For many immigrants, the only way to counteract their condition of despair is to seek social acceptance through membership in narcotic-and-alien-smuggling gangs or by joining the cartel counterculture of violence and criminal activity that has proliferated in so many impoverished communities on both sides of the border.

For immigrants living in impoverished social conditions in border communities,the pathway to involvement in criminal behavior is exceptionally alluring. Poor immigrants represent easy marks for organized gangs like la mañaand transnational criminal cartels who recruit them into criminal organizations for cross-border criminal activity and violence (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2014).

Social disenfranchisement is the etiology ofcriminal participation and the medium of choice for the transportation of drugs, people, weapons, and cash across the international border. Gang and cartel membership replaces alienation from family and school cohorts and establishes a feeling of belonging for desperate immigrant childrenand adolescents, resulting in the coercive persuasion of undocumented immigrants to a life of crime.

In Valley colonias, a significant focusof immigrant poverty is the inability of social-service agencies to sustain the delivery of assistance to illegal immigrants. The increase in the number of educational facilities located in or near colonias seems like a blessing of opportunity. However, it is a mixed blessing for coloniaresidents whose children attend schools built in or near colonias making it easier to identify where illegal immigrant families live. This growth is far more problematic for school-district administrators and taxpayers attempting to balance budgets without increasing property taxes.

Educational and social service outposts built within or near coloniasencourage residents to remain within the limited boundaries of their communities. This serves to increase social isolation by segregating illegals in “caged colonias.” Illegal immigrant colonia residents are set apart from the mainstream of society and offered very limited opportunity for escape from unavoidable institutionalized poverty.

Immigrant poor clustered in densily populations areas is called the “neighborhood effect.” Impoverished coloniasisolate residents from access to both resources and opportunities. Nearly 70 percent of all children living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley live in high-poverty barrios and colonias (The Center for Public Policy Priorities, 2017).

The Texas border’s dire social and economic dynamics have ledmany demographers to predict that the majority of the border population will live in semi-urban slums by the year 2030 (Zavaleta, Texas 2030 Conference, The University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, 2017). Thisis already exemplifiedin many highly urbanized trans-border communities where large populations of urban poor maintain the economic prosperity of the community at an all-time low (Border Colonia report, 2010).

Poverty and Population Growth

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area report indicates that among the 23 U.S. counties that border Mexico, the poverty rate averages 28 percent of the population, while in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the poverty rate is between 35 and 40 percent of the population (SAIPE, 2017).

In fact, demographic experts believe that most of the population growth in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in future decades will be generated by the clustering of immigrant groups into large metropolitan semi-rural and semi-urban centers, intensifying the social problems associated with border urbanization and the continued insulation of the urban poor.

For example, it is projectedthat the continued expansion of the Texas-Mexico cross-border region including the Lower Rio Grande Valley population is expected to explode into a cross-border, mega-metropolitan region or “borderplex” of more than five million inhabitants by 2030. Most of this growth will be the direct result of the migration of poor immigrants “caged” on both the Mexican and the Texas sides of the border (Wilson Center, The State of the Border report, 2013).

Once parents reunite with their children,they are often not allowed to leave the area pending an immigration hearing and most probably will be deported or be forced to remain in the Valley indefinitely since they are not permitted to travel northward. More than half of the 430,000 children living in the Valley live with a single illegal immigrant parent in poverty.

Living in a Valley coloniais tantamount to a life sentence of detention. During the wait,they become semi-permanent residents in border coloniasand poor urban barrios; contributing to the significant number of undocumented workers making far below minimum wage in the Valley’s cash-economy.

Recent human-rights abuse reports indicate that the number of complaints of mistreatment of immigrantchildren is growing steadily.Children report abuses at every stage in their journey, including in their countries of origin and during their odyssey through Mexico (New York Times, 2014).

One report on U.S.-Mexico Border Immigration policy indicates that immigration strategy focusing solely on border security through increased “militarization” has not been successful in accomplishing its intended outcome. However, one unintended outcome is that increased militarization represents a major economic windfall for the border region (Beyond the Border Agreement, Global Research, 2012). That is, most federal immigration and state law-enforcement officials live and invest their incomes in supporting their families in the Valley. They purchase homes, buy cars, and maintain all aspects of economic life by investing their salaries in the Valley economy.

Poverty and violence in the immigrant’s home countries represent the primary causesof why most people migrate to the Texas-Mexico border(High Country News, 2014.).Most unaccompanied child immigrants are sent northward to reunite with family members already in the United States with the urgency of entering the country before immigration reform law are passedin Congress. Illegal immigrants are fearful that a new immigration reform law will prohibit their entry and automatically trigger the deportation of their families (Texas Tribune, 2014).

Today more than 500,000 immigrants live in Valley colonias, and the number of coloniashas grown to over 2,300 along the Texas-Mexico border. Currently, there is no enforced regulation for the creation of coloniasalong the Texas-Mexico border. The hundreds of millions of dollars investedby the state of Texas in the 1970s and 1980s are no longer available to regulate or develop new colonias. Human-rights advocates, as well as county officials, feel that we have returned to the social conditions present in the region more than 40 years ago.

Population density in the colonias continues to rise with dire living conditions visibly evident. Multiple families live in makeshift huts constructed of pallets, and other discarded building materials, cardboard and abandoned house trailers without the benefit of indoor sanitary facilities, electricity, running water, wastewater, drainage or paved streets. The rapid growth of these poor multiple family undocumented immigrant borderland communities provides yet another illustrative example of what social scientists refer to as the neighborhood effect.

To date, at least two generations of undocumented immigrant families have grown up in border coloniasand urban barrios unable to leave. They dreamt of one day entering the United States beyond the “caged” area. However, most never achieve the opportunity to enter the United States beyond the constitutional limit of approximately 100 miles or have the economic wherewithal to return to their native countries.

Since they have no papers,these isolated immigrants are forced to live out their lives in a kind of quasi-suspended animation along the border unable to return home or have the freedom to move about the United States. They are merely “caged.” (UNHCR, 2014).


The essential theme of this paper is to point out the negative impact of the “caging effect” on illegal immigrants living in colonias and urban barrios and the negative consequences of the “Neighborhood Effect” as described by William Julius Wilson in his seminal work on urban poverty and race. The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas demonstrates all of the salient characteristics of the neighborhood effect but has not been documented in the research literature until now.

Four factors support the central thesis that less than desirable socioeconomic conditions in combination with political instability in Central America and Mexico are the primary catalyst driving the substantial increase in the extreme numbers of illegal immigrants crossing the Texas border into the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The critical social factors contributing to the present border crisis include:

  • Illegal immigration that exacerbates rapid population growth and far outstrips border county’s abilities to support the growing number of undocumented immigrants;
  • Rapid and unnatural population growth places increased stress on an already overburdened and underfunded social-service system;
  • Unchecked increase in poverty associated with the “caging” effect and the creation of a neighborhood effect; and
  • Reinforcement of extreme levels of law enforcement also called “militarization” on the border.

These factors have produced an untenable situation along the border and ultimately have created a caste-system configured in the form of rings of poverty around Valley towns, counties, and municipios on both sides of the border. This growing disenfranchised underclass is maintained by a law-enforcement or military class consisting of federal, state and local law-enforcement officials supported by the system.

The “caged” population, on the other hand, is neither able to return to their countries of origin or to move northward and away from the border region. With no viable options available to them, illegal immigrants take up residence in the most impoverished areas of the Valley exacerbating existing dire conditions.

Texas border cities are expected to grow from 50 to 100 percent between 2010 and 2050. El Paso will grow by 50 percent while McAllen is expected to double its size and Brownsville will be right behind with an 80 percent increase in population. Hidalgo County currently has a population of 775,000 which is expected to increase to 1.5 million.

Many demographers believe that this growth will be mostly due to both legal and illegal immigration. McAllen’s population could triple in that timespan depending upon social, economic and political conditions in Central America and the Valley.

Additionally, the Texas side of the border is already home to more than one million illegal immigrants. Hidalgo County, Texas is estimated to be home to at least 100,000 illegal immigrants; El Paso has 66,000, Laredo 30,000 and Brownsville 40,000. The remainder live in rural areas and are not documented.

Simply stated, illegal immigration is the single most crucial factor in the population growth of border and Valley communities. This is a trend beginnin with the Bracero Program in the 1940’s and has never abated (Bracero History Archive, 2017).

That is, the Latino minority population, though dominated by numbers are controlled by the majority population which is much smaller in numbers. The result is a burgeoning illegal population with mounting social problems characterized by the following:

  • A developed country bordering an underdeveloped country;
  • A high incidence of irredentism and discrimination;
  • A high rate of continual illegal immigration;
  • A high population growth rate;
  • A high rate of poverty;
  • A high rate of spillover violence and crime;
  • A high rate of personal, social and political corruption;
  • A high unemployment rate;
  • A low level of educational attainment and a high illiteracy rate;
  • A high number of foreign-born residents; and
  • A high rate of residential segregation in colonias creating internal colonies.

Our conclusions are supported by the classic description of Black ghettos of the 1980s by Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson. In his book, the Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson examined the negative impact of poverty and ghetto life on social isolation and generational poverty. We believe that similar effects are seen in the colonias and urban barrios of the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

Sampson explains that the Latino population is headed straight to the underclass in an authentic and powerful way. This “neighborhood effect” is evident in the characteristics of the Rio Grande Valley (Wilson, 2012).

Cities, counties, the Texas Legislature and the United States Congress, must take notice of these characteristics and assume corrective action. The border is at the “tipping point” and will not be able to maintain current conditions in the coming decades of the 21stcentury (National Immigration Forum, 2013).

A new form of urban poverty is emerging in the Lower Rio Grande Valley similar to large cities of America in which illegal immigrants import a permanent culture of poverty from Central America and Mexico into the Valley which becomes endemic and from there there is no return.


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Antonio N. Zavaleta and Mitchell A. Kaplan
are academics and scholars. Dr. Tony Zavaleta (pictured left) is a native of Brownsville, Texas. He received a doctoral degree in anthropology in 1976 from the University of Texas at Austin and has spent the last 45 years studying the border. Zavaleta is known for his research on border demography, and issues concerning poverty, colonias, immigration, and health disparities. He was awarded the “Premio Ohtli” by Mexico for outstanding contributions to the study of Mexicans living abroad and is Professor Emeritus of anthropology and sociology at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Dr. Mitchell A. Kaplan is a clinical sociologist with 30 years of program evaluation experience. He received his doctorate in sociology from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 1987 and was the recipient of a postdoctoral research fellowship from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Dr. Kaplan is a certified member of the American Academy of Professional Sociological Practitioners. He has worked as a research scientist and professional consultant for several non-profit and local government organizations in New York City.