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From 2010 to 2014, the United States experienced an unprecedented rise in undocumented immigration along the Texas-Mexico border. The Lower Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector saw the highest-ever influx of illegal immigration. 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 making the perilous journey across Mexico in a desperate attempt to enter the United States.
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. The remainder of new arrivals is emanating from Mexico, despite the fact that Mexican immigration is now greatly reduced from what it was in previous years.
Since 2011, there has been a significant rise in illegal immigration to the United States from Central America. Of the 3 million Northern Triangle immigrants who were already living and working in the U.S. in 2015, more than half are illegal.
Approximately 250,000 of those are DREAMERS and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and 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 living 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. Immigrants from 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 tremendous 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 a critical role in the economies of their home countries.’
In 2014, 115,000 new immigrants arrived in the United States from these three countries alone, doubling the 60,000 who arrived in 2011 and every year since then. In fact, demographic statistics from studies conducted by 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 6 percent during the same period.
“For decades, millions of Mexicans crossed into the U.S. in one of the largest mass migrations in modern history. But stricter immigration enforcement and greater 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. Additionally, 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 and to stay home. These factors are responsible for the substantial decline in the number of new Mexican arrivals and have created a workforce void in the United States increasing opportunity for arriving Central Americans in recent years.
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 especially in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in record numbers.
The conditions in El Salvador 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. 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. As a result, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 17,512 unaccompanied Salvadoran minors in 2016 continuing the humanitarian crisis of 2014. Additionally, one-third of the unaccompanied children traveling to the border are 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 failed to deport approximately 550,000 illegal immigrants by granting them temporary amnesty during the Obama administration.
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 a 6 percent decrease from 2016.
By all accounts, 2017 was starkly different. 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 apprehended at 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.
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.
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.
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 is bearing the brunt of this influx. It is stressing the schools and health care systems, it’s costly for taxpayers, and it has created a major public safety problem.” Many thousands of illegal immigrants remain in Texas and along the border taking up residence in border colonias and barrios.
Immigration analysts are aware of the fact that the substantial growth of unaccompanied children attempting U.S.-Mexico border crossings in recent years is linked to an expanding host of complex problems in their home countries. The current unparalleled uptick in illegal immigration of unaccompanied children is fueled by:
- The strong desire to reunite children with their families in the United States;
- The extreme criminal violence and poverty in their respective homelands; and
- The growing fear of adverse immigration laws and an attempt to be grandfathered beforehand.
The summer of 2014 witnessed a historic peak in the growing immigrant population along the border especially the subpopulations of unaccompanied children and single-parent families with small children. The continued in-migration of mothers and children is so great that the U.S. Federal government has recently approved a new deterrent to immigration by separating families at the border. That is holding children separate from their mothers, this scare tactic would send parents to detention facilities while their children remained in a separate protective facility.
During this period, the United States Immigration Service reported an exponential increase of more than 20,000 illegal immigrant apprehensions per month over previous years. Note that the majority of illegal refugees taken into custody by Border Patrol agents should not be enumerated as actual apprehensions since most unaccompanied children turn themselves into authorities at the border-requesting asylum. The continued entry of unaccompanied children has posed a complex legal and moral dilemma for federal immigration and homeland security authorities.
In 2014, detention facilities and immigration courts were quickly overwhelmed by the expanding crisis resulting in pro-refugee organizations, the U.S. Congress and President Obama to declare a humanitarian emergency.
In 2015, two leading experts on the social effects of the current border crisis ̶ Dr. Antonio Zavaleta retired professor of anthropology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Dr. Mitchell Kaplan, a clinical sociologist and independent research consultant in New York City ̶ published a seminal analysis. Their study entitled, The Human Tragedy of Unaccompanied Child Immigration to the U.S.-Mexico Border, 2014, examined the effect of continued illegal immigration on the social and economic conditions along the border and in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Since 2014, the expansion of immigrant populations crossing the U.S.-Mexico border into South Texas has entered an endless cycle of in-migration and out-migration making the immigrant population truly transmigrant.
Leading border researchers have studied the result of packing immigrants into limited spaces due to heavy law-enforcement. They described this condition as so common on the border; it is actually “caging” immigrants in barrios and colonias located along the border.
“Immigration enforcement has led to a “caging effect” over the past two decades which has disrupted seasonal migration flows, increased familial and social ties to the United States, and decreased the probability of returning to Mexico 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.”
The migrant’s decision to stay in the United States or to their country of origin is based on the social and political conditions of the immigrant’s home countries and the intensity of U.S. federal immigration pressure on immigrants in the United States.
By 2017, with the presidential election of 2016 in the history books, anticipated congressional action on the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform law has failed to be enacted by Congress.
Additionally, soon after his inauguration, President Trump terminated former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DREAMERS or the children of illegal immigrants brought to the United States as minors were given until March 5, 2018, to reapply for DACA protection or face imminent deportation. Immigrant children and young adults who qualified for DACA are known as DREAMERS, which resulted from President Obama’s failed attempt to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the Dream Act.
The combination of a lack of legislative action needed to pass comprehensive immigration reform granting protective status to more than 800,000 qualifying undocumented immigrant youth in the United States has left those most vulnerable and with a pervasive fear of imminent deportation. Meanwhile, most of the original Dreamers are no longer children.
The Pew Research Center reports that “About 690,000 unauthorized immigrants were enrolled in DACA as of September 2017, although roughly 800,000 unauthorized immigrants have ever received benefits through DACA, about 110,000 of this group are no longer enrolled in the program. About 70,000 former DACA participants did not renew their benefits or had their renewal application denied. Another 40,000 have adjusted their legal status and obtained green cards, which grant lawful permanent residence.”
As 2017 ended, Congress failed to act as promised on immigration reform choosing instead to kick the DACA can down the road into 2018. Many observers believed that Congress had developed a bipartisan plan to save DACA recipients from deportation by embedding the immigration issue into the Omnibus spending legislation, but that attempt was not successful before the end of 2017. In 2017 DACA advocates saw mounting efforts by bi-partisan supporters to pass DACA legislation and promised action early in 2018. Meanwhile, President’s March 5, 2018 deadline for DACA has come and gone.
Most who take an interest in illegal immigration, including lawmakers and the media have failed to acknowledge that the actual crisis created by illegal immigration in South Texas is the creation of internal colonies of destitute immigrant poor in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the border with Mexico.
Hapless immigrants are packed into deplorable living conditions and are residentially segregated in border colonias, living lives of quiet desperation while illegal immigrant families live in fear of deportation. It is the separation of families that sadly motivates thousands of children to attempt illegal entry into the United States resulting from physical and emotional isolation from their parents in the United States.
These facts bring into sharp focus the reality of South Texas colonias, rural unincorporated, and unimproved makeshift settlements surrounding cities and towns strewn along the winding Texas-Mexico border.
This pent-up aggregation of poverty-stricken immigrant populations living under wretched and deplorable social conditions in marginalized neighborhoods represents a legitimate humanitarian crisis. The increasing pressure of illegal immigrants is placing 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.
Inadequate government funding of social services places substantial limitations on an already disenfranchised poverty-ravaged immigrant population struggling to survive in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and elsewhere along the border.
The communities in which most colonia immigrants reside are characterized by extreme poverty, uncertainty and a general feeling of hopelessness and despair referred to in the social science literature as the Neighborhood Effect. Undocumented residents in these communities live in constant fear of arrest and deportation by U.S. Immigration authorities. The majorithy of poor immigrant children are malnourished and sickly because their illegal immigration status prevents their parents from working or receiving government benefits such as healthcare, food-stamps or subsidized housing.
This contention is confirmed by the work of Carla Argueta of the Congressional Research Service, in her article, Border Security: Immigration Enforcement Between Ports of Entry. Argueta’s report to Congress confirms two salient facts that underscore the research of Zavaleta and Kaplan. First, an increasing number of immigrants are forced to stay in the Lower Rio Grande Valley region of the United States once they cross the border. They do not have the means to return to Central America and have no desire to settle in Mexico and cannot move northward out of the Valley.
Secondly, the increased presence of U.S. Border Patrol and other federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies patrolling the streets and roads of the Lower Rio Grande Valley has placed mounting pressure on undocumented immigrants to hide in their colonia-based homes where they have a sense of security. Illegal immigrants settle primarily in the urban barrios and rural colonias of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The mounting illegal immigrant presence along the border had spurred a major 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.
At least half of all children in the Rio Grande Valley are children of immigrants and the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), and the Texas Kids Count Project indicates that more than half of the children living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (215,000) live with one or more illegal immigrant parents in poverty.
Importantly, the Kids Count Project recognizes that it has no proven method to accurately enumerate the number of illegal immigrant children living in the shadows, so both the total number of children as well as the number of children living in poverty is much greater than reported.
These are the critical factors producing a “caging” effect, which is the primary thesis of this article. 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 to return to their countries of origin after entering the United States illegally. Simply stated, illegal immigrants find that they have no choice but to remain hidden in South Texas border communities.
ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION AND “MILITARIZATION”
The continuing research of Zavaleta and Kaplan highlights how the “caging” effect has influenced an unintended border crisis connected to illegal immigration, while the United States continues to experience one of the greatest surges in immigration in our nation’s history.
In recent years the number of undocumented immigrant refugees entering this country illegally via the Texas-Mexico border has grown substantially. This growth is much to the dismay of government lawmakers and homeland security officials determined to defend our borders against encroachment by those they consider a danger to our national security.
In Texas, the recently passed Senate Bill 4 known as the, “Show me your Papers” law, encourages law-enforcement officers to act as quasi-immigration officials. Meanwhile, illegal immigrants arrive in great numbers having no choice but to flee their countries or face the continuous fear of poverty, violence, and death.
According to various research reports, seventy-five percent of new immigrant arrivals between 2014 and 2017 are children from Central America where poverty, unemployment, gang violence, murder, and political unrest are high. The remainder is from Mexico where drug cartels force impoverished children to serve as lookouts, human traffickers and “mules” used to smuggle drugs and people into the United States.
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 unaccompanied child minors to cross the border illegally seeking asylum.
For many others, the promise of economic opportunity and reunification with family members are deciding factors motivating their efforts to make the treacherous journey across Mexico to the Texas border.
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 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 of a lifetime of poverty as the reward for their perilous journey and illegal entry into the United States.
Mexico has substantially increased its southern border patrol program intended to curb encroachment of Central Americans on its borders with Guatemala and the United States. However, it is unclear that the American Alliance for Prosperity Program (AAPP) in Mexico is succeeding, and conditions may worsen in Central America with the forced deportation of hundreds of Central American Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members back to their homes.
The Trump administration’s forced return policy directed at Central American gang members is proving to have a reverse effect on the surge of the undocumented immigrant population along the south Texas border. That is, it seems to be motivating greater immigration out of Central America instead of subduing it.
The New York Times, reports that “Washington has operated under the assumption that fewer undocumented Central Americans will lead to less gang violence on the streets of the United States. Deporting gang members, however, seems to have actually helped stimulate MS-13’s growth in the United States. There are now around 10,000 members in 40 states.”
The return of violent gang members to their communities in Central America is resulting in more and more unaccompanied child minors and families journeying out of their countries to the United States. Illegal immigrants seek political asylum that allows them to escape the onslaught of violence and death accompanying the return of gang members.
In a desperate effort to escape the horrific conditions in their homeland, many illegal migrants chose the only transportation available to them: riding the “death train” known as La Bestia, the beast. Immigrants and children ride the rails across Mexico in the hope of safe arrival and river crossing at the Texas border. However, many die along the way, either at the hands of gangs or by falling off the train or only to arrive at the Rio Grande river and drown in the crossing. Many others die of exposure to the relentless South Texas sun in the attempt to cross approximately 100 miles of brushland on foot, without water, a buffer zone once called “The Wild Horse Desert.”
Researchers studying the border crisis firsthand, suggest that a combination of factors, in confluence with other unforeseen events, account for the continued ingress of illegal Central Americans into the United States. A persistent danger festers for immigrants, both in their home countries and in their perilous attempt to traverse Mexico and enter the United States.
In September and October 2017, the federal government arrested 267 individuals identified as members of multinational gangs, primarily MS-13. Sadly, ICE officials admit that their gang operations often apprehend innocent non-gang immigrants along with actual gang members further disrupting peaceful immigrant families.
In 2017, illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States temporarily declined while immigrants settling just across the border in the Lower Rio Grande Valley increased. Whatever the causes, the effects are clear in the South Texas border region.
Tangible evidence of the negative impact of socioeconomic changes in the Lower Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas can be seen in increased 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 authorities at all levels along the border.
“In Texas, state troopers have become frontline enforcers of federal immigration laws. In recent years, and especially since Donald Trump was elected president, the Texas Highway Patrol, part of the state’s deportation machine is scooping-up drivers who’ve committed minor traffic infractions. They then funnel them to the Border Patrol and sometimes Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Passengers and pedestrians who were not driving are also taken into custody. Caught in the Texas deportation pipeline, immigrants’ lives are damaged, along with those of their children. Many were born and raised in the U.S.”
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 between June 2016 and July 2017 indicates a 23 percent spike in the number of newly arrived single undocumented adults at border crossings. Additionally, there was a 27 percent rise in the number of unaccompanied children and a 46 percent increase in the number of undocumented immigrant families seeking asylum, although a simple request for asylum no longer grants asylum for illegal immigrants.
Within the period of October 1, 2016 (start of the U.S. fiscal year) to June 30, 2017, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 33,036 unaccompanied children and 63,411 families. An additional 87,591 individuals and families were deemed inadmissible and turned back at the international bridges. It is not clear what fate they encounter at the hands of Mexican immigration officials as they are turned back to Mexico at the border.
United States immigration officials initiated sweeping arrests of undocumented illegal aliens across the country beginning in January 2017. The first three months of the Trump administration saw arrests of undocumented immigrants jump by almost 40 percent.
From January through May 1, 2017, ICE officers arrested 41,318 people at a rate of more than 400 per day, compared to 30,028 during the same period in 2016.
On January 25, 2017, President Donald J. Trump issued executive order EO13768, Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, setting forth the administration’s immigration enforcement and illegal immigrant deportation priorities.
Nevertheless, so far, 2017 arrests pale in comparison to President Obama’s 2011 arrests of 351,029 immigrants or about 29,000 per month. The Obama “sweep” had an unintended-effect accounting in large part for the massive arrests in 2011 and serving as a powerful counter intuitive incentive to Central Americans to migrate to the United States instead of deciding not to come.
Meanwhile, immigration courts are operating at full capacity, and the number of deportations is spiking. Between February and July 2017, immigration court officials ordered 50,000 deportations of illegal aliens, a figure representing a 28 percent increase over the same period in the last year of the Obama administration. However, these illegal immigrant deportation numbers are still lower than the peak year of 2014.
Detained illegal immigrants are spending 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 two years) for non-detained immigrants and 71 days for incarcerated immigrants. Unaccompanied minors and families comprise the non-detained category. In the Lower Rio 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.
In 2016 candidate Trump campaigned for the deportation of illegal immigrants living in the United States as well as for the termination of President Obama’s DACA program which gave provisional protective immigration status and legal rights to a subpopulation of more than half a million children and young adults of undocumented immigrant parents currently living in this country. Immigration-rights groups petitioned the courts in states across the country including Texas pleading with the administration to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program: DACA, to no avail.
They argue that the elimination of DACA will result in a severe disruption to the social and economic progress of many undocumented immigrant families with foreign-born children who have never known any country other than the United States. DACA students attending American high schools and colleges and participating in the workforce enjoy provisional rights and protections through this innovative program.
Research on DACA indicates that Dreamers complete high school at the same rate of the general population, around 44 percent but attend college at a lower rate than American citizens choosing to work. Dreamers also hold jobs while in high school and college. In fact, approximately half of Dreamers are working while the remainder attends school. Research has shown that Dreamers are a working-class population employed in mid-level skilled occupations. They work in service industries and construction, and many hold managerial jobs, and in general, the jobs they hold are much better than the low-skill jobs held by the undocumented immigrant population.
Fear is the administration’s most effective weapon of persuasion as a deterant to immigration, which is used in American cities and along the border as justification for enhancing federal efforts to control border crossings by undocumented immigrants.
Between January and March 2017 federal border patrol agents arrested 21,362 undocumented immigrants with criminal histories an increase of 5,258 arrests over 2016 when 16,104 illegals with criminal backgrounds were taken into custody. In December 2017, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security (DOJ) issued a report indicating that more than one in five persons currently in federal prisons are foreign nationals and that 92 percent of foreign nationals in federal prisons are illegal immigrants. These statistics provide impetus to the Trump administration’s deportation plan, and support Attorney General Sessions claim that “Americans are being victimized by illegal aliens who commit crimes.” The simple fact is that any offense committed by a criminal alien is ultimately preventable. One victim is too many.”
The Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds has served to reduce criminal activity by organized gangs significantly. For example, the deadly Central-American MS-13/Mara Salvatrucha members are being apprehended and deported as quickly as possible while they continue to terrorize East-coast communities. Many lawmakers support the administration’s motivation for using this strategic approach to crime reduction.
Additionally, many criminal immigrants have gone underground the government’s fear tactics resulting in a major downturn in the number of criminal immigrants apprehended in the first six months of 2017. However, the backlash from this approach has had devastating consequences for the non-criminal undocumented population and their children.
The National Immigration Law Center believes that the government’s goal is to make life so unbearable for illegal immigrants that they will voluntarily choose to self-deport. Others say that this is not the case and that people are hiding, waiting, and digging-in and hiding in plain-sight in Valley colonias which is one of the theses of this article. Many believe that the government’s strategy is to instill fear creating a lasting effect on immigrants and especially their children.
Early in 2017, immigration officers increased arrests 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, illegal immigrants living in the colonias of 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.
One prosecutor remarked, “The federal government, in reality in just a couple of months, has undone decades of work that we have done to build this trust.”
The National Academies Press book, Budgeting for Immigration Enforcement: A Path to Better Performances, in Recent Patterns of Unauthorized Immigration, sums up the effect as follows:
“Among unauthorized Mexicans who have made it into the United States, increased border and interior enforcement have a strong negative effect on the likelihood of their returning to Mexico. Unauthorized migrants who are working are reluctant to return to Mexico, even for a short visit, because they risk losing their foothold in the U.S. economy. Moreover, they would have to pay heavily to be smuggled back into the United States. This “Caging effect” of tougher enforcement on return migration is one of the most notable consequences of the immigration enforcement build-up since 1993, accounting for a significant portion of the growth of undocumented Mexicans (in the Lower Rio Grande Valley) during this period.”
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.
One researcher states that “The probability of return to Mexico calculates return within 12 months of the migrant’s arrival to the United States. Since the establishment of the Texas-Mexico border in 1848, Mexican citizens have routinely crossed the border, back and forth, unfettered by immigration law or any other restriction. Immigration law in the United States changed with the creation of Operation Wetback during the Bracero Era in the 1950s.
In their initial article, The Human Tragedy of Unaccompanied Child Immigration to the U.S.-Mexico Border, 2014, Zavaleta and Kaplan examined the exploding immigration of unaccompanied children and families to the border from 2010-2014 and proposed causes and results for continuing high levels of illegal immigration through 2017. Also examined is the long-term negative impact of an increasing Lower Rio Grande Valley poverty rate.
When combined with the socioeconomic marginality of “caged” immigrants in Valley coloniasit becomes obvious that the consequence of “caging” immigrants in the Valley intended or not, is a major environmental nightmare.
Critical in the equation of illegal immigration on the Texas border was fear of the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. In fact, immigrants’ worst fears were realized with the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States in 2016; and the enactment of his campaign promise to deport all of the 11 million illegal immigrants from the United States.
President Trump promised unprecedented enforcement of immigration laws, immigration reform and mass deportation of millions of illegal immigrants and their children from the United States. As predicted, the proposal and implementation of sweeping changes in immigration policies were immediately evident after the inauguration in January 2017.
The administration has also widened its crackdown on undocumented parents living in the United States and attempting to claim their unaccompanied children detained on the border. Thus, the illegal immigrant crackdown has significantly driven immigrants living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley deeper into the shadows of Valley colonias.
As an additional blow, President Trump reversed President Obama’s executive order, which created the DACA program threatening to deport approximately 800,000 undocumented children and young adults along with all other DREAMERS in 2018. Between 115,000 and 200,000 DREAMERS, live in Texas. Studies have confirmed that the majority of DREAMERS and DACA recipients are productive workers and college students working in the American labor force. The Trump administration gave Congress until March 2018 to enact immigration reform to save DREAMERS and DACA, or the government will commence deportation.
Even more frightening is the fact that immigration authorities are now coercing detained children into providing information on the location of their undocumented parents. This latest strategy has fueled great fear for both intimidated children and their parents all of whom now face the real possibility of imminent deportation. Immigration advocates warn that this tactic is tearing families apart as children are forced to identify the location of their illegal immigrant parents a tactic common in fascist countries.
The Trump Immigration Plan includes the following:
- The promise to triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents;
- The mandatory deportation of all criminal undocumented immigrants;
- The detention of undocumented immigrants while awaiting immigration hearings;
- The defunding of sanctuary cities;
- The enforcement of stronger penalties for overstaying visas;
- The deportation of known gang members;
- The deportation of children of illegal immigrants born in the United States;
- The enforcement of e-verify for employment; and,
- The end of welfare programs supporting undocumented immigrants.
These combined efforts have greatly increased the crackdown on undocumented immigrant parents who have come to the Lower Rio Grande Valley from the north seeking to claim their unaccompanied children held in detention. These children have arrived at the border by the thousands and are assigned to Valley shelters and detention centers for undetermined lengths of time.
As an additional measure, beginning in the fall of 2017, immigration officials began disallowing immigrants once arrived in south Texas from returning northward from the Lower Rio Grande Valley further enforcing the creation of an internal colony of poor immigrants “caged” in the Valley.
The Trump administration also greatly restricted the asylum program for mothers and children claiming that it serves as an incentive for invalid asylum claims in the United States. Thus, the Family Case Management Program was eliminated in the summer of 2017.
Even more egregious is the administration’s plan to press felony charges against parents suspected of hiring coyotes/smugglers to cross their children into the United States. These fears lead parents to delay reclaiming their children caged in detention centers for fear of deportation. This results in traumatized children remaining in immigrant detention centers for longer durations. Many hundreds of unaccompanied children are detained in detention facilities along the South Texas border with plans for additional facilities to be built.
ICE spends more than $2 billion on privately-owned-and-operated immigrant-detention centers per year and approximately $32 million annually to feed and provide medical care to illegal immigrant children. However, human-rights groups report the program’s abject failure when it comes to providing detained immigrants with critical and timely medical attention or legal representation.
The apprehension of unaccompanied children increased by 38 percent in the first three months of 2017, and thousands more are currently in jeopardy of arrest.
It is important to note that less than half of the persons entering the United States are apprehended at 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. Smugglers charge upward of $4,000 to transport a single child out of the Valley and into the interior of the United States.
Most safe houses are deeply hidden in impoverished pockets of Valley colonias and barrios. These clandestine locations serve as staging areas before attempts are made to transport illegal immigrants north of the Border Patrol check-points. The Border Patrol maintains 34 interior checkpoints up to 100 miles north of the border. At the Laredo, Texas checkpoint, agents have approximately 10 seconds to evaluate the approximately 9,000 vehicles traveling northward daily.
Additionally, legal immigrants are also in danger. In August 2017, the Trump administration announced the development of plans to curb legal immigration including the admission of limited numbers of educated and trained workers, ending “chain migration,” where one family member brings another family member and then the next into the United States.
Recent government reports indicate that federal immigration officials counted the number of green cards issued between 2005 and 2015 finding that the majority were awarded to immigrants admitted through the family-preference program. That is, they were issued to family members of legal immigrants living in the United States. Federal statistics indicate that approximately 9.3 million new immigrants were admitted to the United States by chain-migration over the ten-year period. Approximately 1.7 million of these immigrants are Mexicans, and a healthy percentage of those live in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Additionally, new immigration enforcement will establish a “grading system” for green-card eligibility, which will cut the number of immigrants entering the country each year by half.
Currently, the deportation of up to 11 million illegal immigrants who are currently in the U.S. is on-hold. Deportation efforts are ostensibly intended to enforce border security and to put Americans back to work.
Approximately one million legal immigrants enter the country each year on work and student visas. Immigration reform would reduce legal immigration to the United States to approximately 500,000 annually and eliminate chain immigration. In previous years, the United States accepted approximately one million immigrants per year, amounting to approximately 33 million legal immigrants admitted over the last 35 years, of which approximately 61 percent were chain immigrants. Statistics show that the average immigrant to the United States sponsored 3.5 additional immigrants.
The Department of Homeland Security indicates that 76 percent of DACA recipients are from Mexico and that Mexican immigrants sponsor an average of 6.4 additional legal immigrants, the highest rate for any nationality for chain migration.
One of several proposed Immigration Reform Bills known as the RAISE Act will require full self-sufficiency of legal immigrants. Immigrants will be required to possess a marketable skill, be employable and live without receiving welfare to remain in the United States and subsequently claim a path to citizenship.
DREAMERS are children and adolescents who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents under the age of 16, are 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.
In 2012, President Obama issued an executive action, creating an opportunity for DREAMERS to receive protective status through a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Under the Trump administration, DACA protection will be terminated, and all DREAMERS will be deported.
Two federal laws regulate the treatment and processing of children: The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, and the Homeland Security Act of 2002, legally known as the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997. The Trump administration also plans to terminate these important pieces of legislation.
Many of the children of undocumented immigrants or DREAMERS have never lived outside of the United States having been brought to the United States as children. While DACA was never intended to be a permanent program, recipients have been waiting for Congress to enact immigration reform to protect them. However, Congress has not acted as of March, 2018. DACA does not offer legal immigration status nor a path to citizenship or any other permanent protection. Nor does it give immigrants legal U.S. residence.
However, those who qualify for DACA may avoid deportation for up to two years and are granted permission to work and go to school in the United States. However, government data reveal that only half of DACA recipients have attained a high-school diploma. It has been suggested that a major percentage of DACA recipients have serious limitations in their education and English fluency that affect their ability to function in American society, making them vulnerable to deportation.
The Obama administration created the DACA program to shield up to five million immigrants from deportation; providing them with work and education permits. The DACA program is, likely, one of the primary reasons that Central-American immigration dramatically increased after the establishment of DACA. Beginning in 2014, immigrants sensed that the DACA program was most likely head for termination in 2017. Therefore, unaccompanied child immigrants and their parents rushed to enter the United States believing that they would be “grandfathered” or otherwise authorized to remain in the country. This, however, is not the case.
The Trump administration’s Immigration Plan will have the following effects:
- It eliminates a safe path for children and forces them into hiding;
- It turns away asylum seekers at the border;
- It separates mothers from children and detains asylum seekers awaiting a court date; and,
- It is more stringent on unaccompanied children and may criminalize parents.
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 for a two-year period.
Research by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) reveals that as of 2016 more than 1.9 million unauthorized immigrants were potentially eligible to participate in the DACA program. Researchers at the Migration Policy Institute divided the potential applicants into three identifiable groups;
- 1.3 million unauthorized immigrants who met all the DACA eligibility criteria and were therefore immediately eligible to apply for deferred action;
- 398,000 unauthorized immigrants who met all DACA eligibility criteria except for the education requirement of having attained a high school diploma or the equivalent; and
- 228,000 unauthorized immigrant children who were previously ineligible for DACA because they were below the program’s minimum age of 15 at the time of implementation would now be eligible to apply to the program providing they stay in school.
As of 2017, only about 800,000 DREAMERS eligible for DACA have applied for and received certification as such. Approximately 200,000 DREAMERS and DACA recipients live in Texas, many along the South Texas border.
Research findings provide clear indications that DACA has transformed the lives of thousands of undocumented immigrants in many positive ways that are of significant benefit to the economy of the nation, especially the Lower Rio Grande Valley. DACA is one of a very limited number of avenues immigrants have to climb out of a life of poverty.
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 instrumental in 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. Overall, DACA has resulted in raising the socioeconomic status of all immigrants, legal and illegal. Additionally, economists find that DACA recipients have higher incomes and greater financial stability increasing household economic power in local economies.
In total, the repeal of DACA will result in the loss of 800,000 productive employees from the American workforce over the next two years and will cost employers $3.4 billion in unnecessary job-retraining expenses. It will also significantly reduce taxpayer contributions to Social Security by approximately $24.6 billion over the next decade.
As a result, there will be a negative economic impact in the employment sector of the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, along the border and elsewhere in the state and nation.
It is evident from the research reviewed here that DACA recipients represent a vital source of economic strength and social stability for immigrants in the Texas and U.S. economy as a whole. The program has been a particularly positive immigration pull-factor in certain areas of the country such as the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas where poverty and unemployment in mixed-immigrant families are high.
Mixed immigrant families are those that contain some legal members able to work while living in the same household with illegal members who cannot legally work.
Recent reports from the Texas Workforce Commission’s periodic labor market data indicate that the unemployment rates in the Lower Rio Grande Valley are the lowest they have been in 30 years. However, these figures do not reflect the vast numbers of illegal immigrants living in the Valley who are not counted or eligible to participate in the Valley workforce. Therefore the low unemployment rate is an underestimate of actual unemployment.
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the service sector including all levels of government employment increased by 3,200 jobs the majority of those in healthcare and social services. The total number of non-farm sector jobs increased in the Valley by 7,600. Meanwhile, the total available unemployed job-seeker pool has shrunk since most illegal immigrants are not eligible for legal employment.
DACA recipients work hard to overcome social and economic barriers hopeful for an opportunity to become productive citizens and attain a chance to reap the benefits of the American dream.
Despite the well-documented positive effects of DACA, on September 5, 2017, the program is scheduled to end. United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions revealed plans to rescind the DACA program leaving it up to Congress to develop a legislative alternative to deportation by March 5, 2018. If Congress did not act by March 5, 2018, it is estimated that as many as 983 undocumented DACA recipients will lose their protected status daily resulting in approximately 30,000 deportations per month on the average for the period 2018 to 2020. In early 2018, the Federal court placed a temporary hold on the commencement of deportation proceedings of Dreamers and DACA recipients. Their ultimate fate is not known.
Given the backlog of other more pressing legislative concerns facing lawmakers during the waning days of 2017, it was not possible for Congress to act on immigration reform in the period allotted by the president. Congress’ inability to act leaves hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients and their families immediately vulnerable to deportation.
However, a lawsuit was brought by DACA advocates in a California Federal Courts which ruled against the administration’s attempt to terminate the DACA program. The Trump administration appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case that was denied in February 2018. Therefore, March 5, 2018, deadline is no longer legally valid, and the Federal Government must continue the program for the foreseeable future. However, on February 27, 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that immigrants in long-term detention and awaiting the outcome of deportation proceedings do not have the right to a bond hearing after six months.
The U.S.-Mexico border region in general and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, in particular, is arguably the most underdeveloped and 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 comprised of both legal and illegal immigrants.
The mass deportation of gainfully employed family members will result in a significant blow to the economy of the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and a disruption in the lives of thousands of 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 has begun.
Parents and children are being targeted in a new crackdown, and in some cases, parents are being charged with felonies for the illegal trafficking of their children. It may be claimed with certainty that it is a frightening day to be an undocumented immigrant in America.
While Congress debates, the various alternatives proposed for DACA reform and as the administration creates arbitrary immigration policy by executive order, the number of unaccompanied children and families crossing the Texas border continues unabated.
The result is a growing “caged” population of isolated illegals; most whom disappear into the colonias and low-income neighborhoods of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
The administration’s tough talk on immigration has not slowed illegal immigration, it has, however, lowered the number of immigrants walking across the bridges in request of asylum, which is an increasingly difficult and complicated legal matter is no longer a simple avenue available to them for legal entry to the United States.
The apprehension rate of an illegal immigrant attempting to cross one of the international bridges is 64 percent compared to a 27 percent chance of apprehension of those immigrants attempting to cross the river. Therefore, the apprehension of undocumented immigrants attempting a bridge crossing is twice as successful compared to the capture of illegals attempting a river crossing. Knowing this intuitively, immigrants continue to choose a river crossing.
Thus, the rate of undocumented immigrants illegally crossing the river has not slowed as evidenced by the mounting number of returned refugees stockpiled in Mexican border communities like Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juárez.
In 2017, Mexico reported the detention of 10,000 immigrants awaiting deportation to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. This figure represents only a small percentage of the total population of illegal Central Americans placed in a holding pattern at the Mexican border.
In fact, border porosity continues unabated, and an entirely new strategy must be adopted before there is any hope for a secure border. Proof of the expansion of the undocumented immigrant population in this region is evidenced by the exponential growth of border school districts and the request for a myriad of social services that have realized significant increases by illegal immigrants in 2017-2018.
Additionally, Texas now reports the existence of 2,300 colonias along the border; mostly located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and most new colonia residents are undocumented immigrants.
A critical factor of importance to the evolving undocumented immigration dynamic along the U.S.-Mexico border is the deteriorating social and economic conditions immigrant families face in the United States, particularly those who reside in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
Research reveals that the average number of families living in poverty in Texas border counties exceeds that of all the other counties in the state if not the nation. The debilitating effects of institutionalized poverty upon the lives of immigrants in the Valley are self-evident and exacerbated by a plethora of less-than-desirable conditions influencing the socioeconomic status of the area.
That is, as an underclass in the Valley, the non-working poor are increasingly socially and economically distanced from the working lower class constituting a permanent caste of indigent immigrants. Key among the characteristics of abject poverty are:
- A low level of literacy and dropping rate of school attendance;
- A significant increase in the number of single-parent households;
- A high birth rate;
- Poor health status;
- Hunger resulting from lack of access to government benefits; and
- A significant amount of underemployment and unemployment.
The Caging and Neighborhood Effects
In their original 2015 analysis, Zavaleta and Kaplan suggest that the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas continues to experience a downward socioeconomic spiral toward the creation of an internal colony or permanent holding area for immigrants and the poor. Illegal immigrants who have crossed the Texas-Mexico border or Frontera are unable to move out of the Valley and are hesitant or unable to return to their countries of origin. In the study of immigration and settlement, this phenomenon is known as the “caging effect.”
It is important to understand that the “caging effect,” is a metaphor that infers that once in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, undocumented immigrants are forced to live in the shadows and are in a “cage” that blocks them from moving northward. At the same time, they are unwilling or unable to return to Mexico or Central America. Furthermore, the reality of the “caging effect” serves as an incentive in the development of a smuggling industry moving immigrants across the river and then northward out of the Valley and into the rest of the country.
Combined with the “Caging Effect is the “Neighborhood Effect,” found in large cities that include dilapidated housing structures, abandoned cars and lots filled with trash and other debris, unsupervised children, prostitution and the pervasive use of drugs all common features of Valley colonias and urban barrios.
Social conditions such as these have made significant contributions to the development of a social climate of hopelessness or anomie among immigrants living in border communities. Anomie is a concept developed by French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), referring to a condition of normlessness or hopelessness.
The result is the formation of a continuous string of “caged” colonias along the Texas-Mexico border from Brownsville to El Paso.
Colonias are defined as rural unincorporated and unimproved clusters of shanty settlements. Recently created colonias by unscrupulous landowners 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 traditional school bus routes.
Hundreds of these colonias contain undocumented immigrant populations referred to as paracaidistas or parachutists because of the way the immigrants arrive in the border communities by simply “dropping-in” mimicking the infamous slums in Latin America.
Federal checkpoints which retain immigrants in the border zone are located on the two major routes northward of the Valley at Falfurrias, Texas (US Highway 281) and Sarita, Texas (US Highway 77). There is no Border Patrol checkpoint on US Highway 83 leading west to Laredo, Texas since it does not exceed the frontier. Interstate highway 35 north from Laredo toward San Antonio does have a check station at a similar distance north of the border.
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 enclosed-pressurized populations contained in Mexican border communities from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. In Mexican municipios or counties, poor immigrant enclaves often cluster in or around communal farm settlements called ejidos encircling metropolitan areas and along the river.
The growth of poverty among the immigrant population without the possibility of advancement in this cross-border region has made the daily struggle for survival nearly impossible and hence has often forced desperate people into lives of criminal activity to survive.
Additionally, U.S. Border Patrol agents are faced with multiple-apprehension processing and deportation of repeat offenders’ week after week. It has been said that “Something to eat and a bed at a U.S. detention center is often better than starvation or sleeping on the streets in Mexico and Central America.”
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-related emotional conditions brought on by heightened feelings of social isolation, worthlessness, and despair.
The behavioral health of 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.
The years, 2014-2017, saw a dramatic increase in violence along the border promulgated by warring factions of drug cartels combined with spillover-violence on the 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.
In addition to organized corporate drug cartels, gangs of loosely affiliated street criminals called la maña operate in every Mexican border town. La maña is principally responsible for border auto thefts, assaults, abductions and ATM kidnapping.
In 2017, unaccompanied children continued to arrive at the border in surging numbers. Unaccompanied children crossing the border increased by 78 percent in the period between 2015 and 2016. During the first six months of 2017, approximately 27,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the border. November 2017 apprehensions were up by 12 percent compared to October with double the numbers for March and April 2017. Even more disturbing is the fact that families traveling together increased by 45 percent while unaccompanied minors increased by 26 percent. Furthermore, 66 percent of all apprehensions in 2017 took place among the undocumented poor immigrant population living in the internally “caged” urban barrios and rural colonias within the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Reports suggest that the Obama administration worsened the overall condition of young refugees in 2016 by committing $86 million to address efforts to intercept Central American and Mexican refugees in Mexico before they arrived at the border. There is no accounting for how that money was spent. The condition of detainees in Mexico is exponentially worse than in the United States. Mexico claims to have deported approximately 10,000 immigrants to Central America in 2016 a paltry number in that in 2016 Mexico encountered five times more unaccompanied children than in the past. Mexico underreports the immigrants apprehended, while most immigrants are never caught, simply disappearing into Mexican slums.
For immigrants living in impoverished social conditions in border communities, the pathway into involvement in criminal behavior is extremely alluring. Poor immigrants represent easy marks for organized gangs like la maña and transnational criminal groups who recruit them into criminal organizations for cross-border criminal activity and violence.
Social disenfranchisement is the etiology of criminal participation and the medium of choice for the transportation of drugs, people, weapons, and cash across the border. Gang and cartel membership replaces alienation from family and school cohorts and establishes a feeling of belonging for desperate immigrant children and adolescents, resulting in the coercive persuasion of undocumented immigrants sometimes called the Stockholm syndrome.
While it is difficult to predict the flow of illegal immigration to the United States in the future, the Lower Rio Grande Valley has reached a “tipping point” regarding the number of the undocumented population the Valley can support.
In Valley colonias,a major focus of immigrant poverty is the inability of social-service agencies to sustain the delivery of assistance to illegal immigrants. Also, the increase in the number of educational facilities represents a mixed blessing for colonia residents 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 colonias encourage residents to remain within the limited boundaries of their communities serving 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.
This is called the “neighborhood effect” of immigrants living in high poverty areas. Impoverished colonias isolate 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.
Discriminatory practices represent an infringement upon basic human rights, compromising the overall well-being of society at both the individual and collective level. On the individual level, society’s well-being is assessed by the social needs of immigrants, and on the collective level, by the way, the social needs of families and communities are met. “Poor immigrant children growing up in colonias face barriers in housing, education, and health, which can lead to slowed growth and low educational development rates.”
Critical measures implemented to assess the health status and overall development of immigrants in the United States include physical and emotional health, lifespan, morbidity, nutritional status, cognitive development, and human-growth factors in addition to illiteracy and the overall lack of educational attainment.
Public-health studies reveal that immigrant communities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley fall far behind the rest of the state and nation on all-important indicators of human health and development.
Another indicator of inequity in the border region stems from the fact that even though the U.S.-Mexico border shares many social characteristics with other border regions of the world, it is unique in its demographic nature.
Demographic data reveal that the area’s large immigrant population falls far below that of every other ethnic group in the region by all significant social and political indicators of economic, educational and health disparity.
The lack of economic resources places most of the immigrant and native Latino population in border communities at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale and leaves them with little opportunity for social and economic mobility in comparison to the region’s overall population. The difference between the two populations is demonstrable.
The Texas border’s dire social and economic dynamics have led many demographers to predict that the majority of the border population will live in semi-urban slums by the year 2030. This is already exemplified in many highly urbanized trans-border communities where large populations of urban poor maintain the economic prosperity of the community at an all-time low.
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 increases to between 35 and 40 percent of the population.
Additionally, children suffer the most; the child-poverty rate in this region has skyrocketed to approximately 50 percent, and children living in colonias are almost all poor. Two main social forces drive poverty rates among children in the Valley upward:
- Mass immigration from Central America and Mexico, and;
- The invisible transnational migration settlement of immigrants into the poorest urban neighborhoods on the U.S. side of the border to escape detection. 
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-semi-urban centers, intensifying the social problems associated with border urbanization and the continued insulation of the urban poor.
For example, it is projected that 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 area 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.
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 49,959 unaccompanied children were apprehended in 2014, the peak year. Subsequently, that number declined in 2015 to 23,864 due to intense border enforcement and then began to rise again in 2016, reaching 36,714, a 54 percent increase within a one-year period.
The number of unaccompanied children apprehended by border patrol officials in 2017 is higher than it was during the same period in 2015-2016 when adult apprehensions increased by 90 percent.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports for 2016, indicate total apprehensions nationwide to be 530,250 with increases in deportation reaching 450,954, individuals removed from the country. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization Service indicate that the number of undocumented immigrants apprehended in South Texas in 2015 and 2016, exceeded 100,000 each year. The clear majority of immigrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol were in the Rio Grande sector, and if not deported, most are fated to remain “caged” in that sector.
The data indicate that the massive influx of impoverished immigrant children into Valley border communities is disproportionately driving up the percentage of children living in extreme poverty and social isolation to unprecedented and unacceptable heights.
Between 2015 to 2017, thousands of mostly Central-American parents attempted to identify their children in detention centers on the border. The fact that these immigrant parents are journeying across the United States to the border in search of their children only serves to exacerbate an already dangerous problem that has U.S. government officials searching for effective resolutions.
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 colonia is tantamount to a life sentence of detention. During the wait, they become semi-permanent residents in border colonias and poor urban barrios; contributing to the huge number of undocumented workers making far below minimum wage in the Valley’s cash-economy.
The number of families attempting to cross the river illegally into the Lower Rio Grande Valley is also on the rise. Many children are simply abandoned on the U.S. side of the river by smugglers and are taken into custody to be claimed by family members who reunite with them only after great difficulty. Claiming detained unaccompanied children have become more and more dangerous for parents as well as it is difficult.
In the early days of the Trump administration, the United States lacked a clear policy to govern immigration, in other words, the holding, removal, and repatriation of unaccompanied children and the lack of due process may be seriously challenged if immigrant human rights are not honored.
In sending their children northward from Central America, parents mistakenly believe if they pay smugglers extra money for their children’s passage into the United States, they will receive special treatment and suffer less. Actually, it is the exact opposite. Child abuse at the hands of smugglers is extremely commonplace. However, there is little evidence of child abuse in U.S. detention facilities or by federal officials although allegations are commonplace.
Recent human-rights abuse reports indicate that the number of complaints of mistreating immigrant children is growing steadily. Children report abuses at every stage in their journey, including in their countries of origin and during their odyssey through Mexico.
The most recent and comprehensive report documenting abuse states that ICE is generally incapable of properly examining privately owned and operated detention centers. NPR reports that outside advocacy groups claim extensive human rights abuses at ICE detention centers. In addition to unsanitary conditions, hygiene supplies are inadequate, medical care is not forthcoming, and the food is unsafe to eat.
Even more disturbing is the fact that these findings by a federal investigative team are not new since similar findings have been documented since 2014. They conclude that substandard detention facilities place detainees’ lives at risk.
One report on U.S.-Mexico Border Immigration policy indicates that immigration strategy focusing solely on security through increased “militarization” has not been successful in accomplishing its intended outcome. However, one unintended outcome is that increased militarization does represent a major economic windfall for the border region. 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 incomes in the Valley economy.
On the other hand, many believe that the huge and increasing number of federal, state, and local law-enforcement agents weaken the rights of border communities in that expanded law-enforcement negatively influences the psyche of the entire border community and not just illegal immigrants.
Furthermore, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions promises to incentivize the apprehension of illegal immigrants by awarding more than $98 million in community policing grants to local police departments who cooperate with federal immigration authorities. This is attractive to underfunded border law-enforcement agencies as well as to the State of Texas.
Texas and its border communities seek reimbursement for local funds expended to provide for immigrant families while housed in border communities. When immigrant children and families are detained on the border, it is often for an unreasonable length of time resulting in suffering and overall degradation of emotional health and human rights.
Given the situation described in this analysis, it is evident that policy changes must be implemented within the U.S. immigration system to safeguard the basic human rights of unaccompanied immigrant children and their parents who are seeking a new beginning in our country. The Trump administration has promised needed change, but to date, no concrete strategic plan to implement these changes has been put forward.
The U.S. judicial system must install practices and procedures that will protect the rights of immigrants by giving them access to legal counsel and by allowing refugee authorities to expedite the review of all court cases involving the proposed decision to deport immigrant families from the United States.
Most importantly, laws must be enacted which allow immigrants to leave the border region and enter the United States beyond the frontier while awaiting immigration hearings. Currently, the wait for an immigration hearing can be up to two years or longer.
Poverty and violence in their home countries represent the primary causes of why most people migrate to the Texas-Mexico border. Most unaccompanied child immigrants are sent northward to reunite with family members already in the United States with the urgency of entering the United States before immigration reform law are passed in Congress. Illegal immigrants are fearful that a new immigration reform law will prohibit their entry and automatically trigger the deportation of their families.
The urgency they once perceived to emigrate is now of lesser importance since executive orders regarding immigration policy and procedures may be made at any time with a stroke of the President’s pen and without the need for Congressional approval or oversight.
Finally, in the last three years, there has been a well-documented “word of mouth” propaganda campaign operating in Central-American countries and among immigrant-advocacy groups urging immigrants to send their children to the United States. These same groups urged immigrant communities living in colonias to resist census enumeration during the 2010 census process thus continually undercounting the Valley population. This anti-government behavior is expected to continue during the upcoming 2020 census.
One immigrant mother said, “I decided to leave Central America with my child so that maybe, this way, they’ll give me a chance to help my children advance,” and we were told not to participate in the census process.” The population undercount in the Rio Grande Valley hurts all agencies in that fewer funds are available.
It is estimated that the cost to the U.S. government to house, feed and transport immigrant families to shelters and or reunite them with relatives living in the United States will continue to increase each year if an appropriate and acceptable alternative is not found. The increase in the immigrant population reduces the already limited funding available and exacerbates a continued and adverse increase of the poor living in the colonias of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Today more than 500,000 immigrants live in Valley colonias, and the number of colonias has grown to over 2,300 along the Texas-Mexico border. Currently, there is no enforced regulation in the creation of colonias along the Texas-Mexico border. The hundreds of millions of dollars invested by the state of Texas in the 1970s and 1980s are no longer available to regulate or develop newer colonias. Human-rights advocates, as well as county officials, feel that we are returning to the social conditions that were present in this 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.
Outdoor privies, thought to have been eliminated in the United States long ago are commonplace in Valley colonias and urban barrios today. Today illegal electrical and water connections are made from house-to-house using extension cords and garden hoses producing a great risk of fire and disease which are commonplace.
In 2017, the Texas program, which regulated colonias and provided running water, electricity and other improvements to colonias, was discontinued, and the state office, which oversaw colonia development since 1999, was closed.
For those unaccompanied children not lucky enough to have a Valley address, relative or safehouse to go to or who are without a parent or relative to claim them the situation is far more difficult. When they are apprehended crossing the border illegally, they are taken to a holding facility and then to a detention center where they commiserate with other children often traumatized by fear and anxiety. Children in detention shelters are processed through immigration courts which function painfully slow.
In 2014, an immigrant family’s odds of remaining in the United States after illegally entering were better than average. Homeland Security data indicate that approximately 80 percent of the child-visa petitions were approved between 1992 and 2014. Central-American parents aware of this success rate felt justified in sending their children to the United States unaccompanied. However, the success rate changed for the worse in 2017 with the Trump administration’s added border immigration enforcement and most likely will never return to the previous level of success.
While children may petition for Special Immigrant Juvenile Visas (SIJV), agencies’ policies and procedures are highly regionalized. Rules are interpreted arbitrarily by immigration courts based on local interpretation and not on a unified national standard.
Additionally, the charge of Entry Without Inspection (EWI) is on the rise. The EWI charge is used when an immigrant is detained while having established residence in the Valley. Since these immigrants were not apprehended at the time of entry into the United States, they are charged with Entry Without Inspection when apprehended at a later date.
For example, at the Port Isabel area detention center in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 1,000 of the 1,200 available beds are constantly occupied. Data from the Transactional Access Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University indicate that in 2017, 52 percent of available beds are occupied by detainees who entered without inspection (EWI). The remaining 48 percent of detainees were charged with other immigration violations such as illegal entry and illegal reentry.
Immigration attorneys in the Valley say that EWI cases have been on the rise since January 2017. Both the number of people placed in detention in the Lower Rio Grande Valley as well as the length of time detained is increasing because the system is vastly overwhelmed.
To date, at least two generations of undocumented immigrant families have grown up in border colonias and urban barrios unable to leave. They dreamt of one day being allowed to enter 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 ability to return to their native country.
Since they have no papers, these 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 simply “caged.”
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.
Five 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 key social factors contributing to the present border crisis include:
- Illegal immigration 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 describes as “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 poorest areas of the Valley exacerbating existing dire conditions.
The Texas-Mexico border consists of four Mexican border states which adjoin Texas and are matched by seven pairs of border towns and cities. The seven Texas border cities account for approximately 2.3 million people while the seven Mexican sister cities represent 3.1 million people for a total Texas-Mexico cross-border population of more than 5.4 million persons. It is estimated that the population in general, and the illegal immigrant population in particular, is undercounted by at least 50 percent.
The largest cross-border populations are growing at rates which far outstrip similarly sized Texas populations not located on the border. For example, between 2010 and 2017, Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico across the border from Hidalgo, County, Texas experienced a population increase of approximately 45 percent while McAllen, Texas in Hidalgo County just north of Reynosa, grew by 36 percent.
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 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 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.
Simply stated, illegal immigration is the single most important factor in the population growth of border and Valley communities. This is a trend that began with the 1940s Bracero Program and has never abated.
Between 2010 and 2017, the Lower Rio Grande Valley registered more than 2 million apprehensions of illegal immigrants and border security estimate that an equal number were not apprehended. With each illegal-crossing attempt, immigrants become more and more astute in successfully crossing into the United States, either by the river or by a bridge. This fact has maintained Hidalgo and Cameron counties as the two poorest in Texas. Therefore, the two most impoverished counties in Texas have become “cages” for poor immigrants worsening their already dire economic condition.
Poverty is the most distinguishing characteristic of people living in Valley colonias, and there are more than 2,300 colonias in Hidalgo County alone representing a shadow population of at least 500,000 uncounted people.
Additionally, the Texas-Mexico border must be characterized as an irredenta colony, where the minority non-Latino population controls most societal aspects for the majority Latino population. This well-developed irredenta colony along the Texas border is a region that is historical, and ethnically and economically dominated by a non-Latino majority population. Meanwhile, the Latino population is subordinate to it ethnically, economically and politically.
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 and barrios creating internal colonies.
Finally, these factors combine to create a “caging effect” or caste-system resulting in a permanent underclass living in continually deteriorating neighborhoods.
The post-World War II era has witnessed a tremendous change in the irridenta conditions in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The “Latino baby-boom,” children of WWII veterans have prospered, joining the ranks of the Valley’s professional class and transformed the irridenta to an economically-dominated rather than an ethnically-dominated society.
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.
Similarly, University of Chicago sociologist, Robert Sampson coined the concept of the “Neighborhood Effect.” Deteriorating conditions in border colonias and urban barrios are very similar to the “Neighborhood Effect,” found in large cities that include dilapidated housing structures, abandoned cars and lots filled with trash and other debris, unsupervised children, prostitution and the pervasive use of drugs all common features of Valley colonias and urban barrios.
That is South Texas neighborhoods matter in poor people’s lives. Sampson reflects that “Exposure to severely disadvantaged areas hampers children’s verbal skills roughly equivalent to missing years of education,” not to mention the delay in their overall cognitive and physical development.
Other important concepts supported in this article include the fact that poverty is passed-on from generation to generation in the Rio Grande Valley and that an underclass has supplanted ethnicity as the defining characteristic of Latino neighborhoods.
Poverty is associated with a myriad of social problems all of which are common in Valley colonias and urban barrios. These conditions include but are not limited to, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, joblessness, unwanted pregnancies, broken families, and dependence on welfare programs.
Sampson explains that the “The Latino population is headed straight to the underclass in a very real and powerful way.” This “neighborhood effect” is clearly evident in the characteristics of the Rio Grande Valley.
Additionally, inner-city sociological research has shown that in regards to Latino neighborhoods, large numbers of immigrants promote decreases in crime. However, the proximity to the border and drug cartels provide an enticement to participate in criminal activities in the Valley.
The United States has experienced a 50 percent increase in immigration from 1990 to 2000, as Central Americans and Mexicans flood into American cities and the border. This is especially true of border colonias. Therefore, neighborhoods matter because of the negative effects colonias and barrios have on children’s lives and the fact that these negative effects are passed on from generation to generation. Any reasonable examination of poverty in the Valley reveals at least four consecutive generations of poverty in families and in some cases, even more.
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 21st century. 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.
Endnotes and References Antonio N. Zavaleta, Ph.D. is a retired Professor of Anthropology from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.  Mitchell A. Kaplan, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist, writer, and researcher in New York City.