Immigration issues look very different when they hit close to home


When it came to border policy, César Chávez often sounded like today’s right-wing immigration hawks. 

Chávez, the late, legendary leader of the United Farm Workers union, frequently complained that our country had open borders.  

He argued that U.S. immigration officials were colluding with California growers to allow undocumented immigrants to cross into the country from Mexico. He said border checkpoints were deliberately being left unmanned.      

In August 1967, Chávez threatened border-blocking demonstrations to prevent migrants from entering the country. 

He regarded undocumented immigrants as enemies — or, more precisely, as pawns of his enemies — who were taking jobs from his union members, bringing down farm-worker wages and unwittingly serving as strikebreakers. 

In 1969, Chávez complained that “fields are filled by wetbacks breaking the (United Farm Workers) strike.”  

In June 1974, he launched the Illegals Campaign, a union effort to patrol the border and report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities.  

“We don’t want Mexico to export its poverty to us,” Chávez said later that year. 

I bring up this piece of history not to disparage Chávez, one of the great social-justice warriors of the 20th century and a justly revered Chicano icon. My point is that your perspective on undocumented immigration has a lot to do with whether or not it directly affects your life or your community.  

No matter how sympathetic you may be on a philosophical level to the plight of migrants trying to escape poverty or persecution in their native countries, if you live in a small border town that’s struggling to keep up with the influx of people crossing the border, you’re likely to feel the strain. 

RELATED: Border Democrat says government shutdown ‘coming at the wrong time’ as crossings rise

As a Mexican American who grew up near the border, in the predominantly Mexican American communities of Brownsville and Edinburg, I know that attitudes about undocumented immigration in border communities tend to be complex and contradictory.  

You will find people in border communities who simultaneously express anger at the media demonization of Latin American migrants; anxiety about the proximity of Mexican gangs and drug trafficking; appreciation for the retail business and labor force that undocumented immigrants provide; and frustration over accounts of trash and clothing left behind by migrants who traipse across the private property of farmers and ranchers near the border.

Those contradictory impulses are surely being felt in the border town of Eagle Pass, 140 miles southwest of San Antonio. 

Over a period of two days this past week, Eagle Pass saw the arrival of 4,000 migrants, many of them traveling from Venezuela.  

The town’s shelter couldn’t handle the volume of humanity and many migrants were left to fend for themselves out on the streets. 

In response, Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas issued a disaster declaration.   

The complexity of the situation has played out this year with the story of Hugo and Magali Urbina, owners of a pecan orchard in Eagle Pass. 

RELATED: Surge of migrants hits home; San Antonio migrant center at capacity

The Urbinas are Republicans who initially allowed the state of Texas to put up razor wire on their property, but then became so disturbed at the realization that migrants were dying on their property that they asked the state to take the wire down.   

In Uvalde, about an hour east of the U.S.-Mexico border, residents across the political spectrum agree that the town has a major problem with so-called “bailouts,” in which smugglers carrying either undocumented immigrants or drugs engage in high-speed chases with law-enforcement officials and then ditch their vehicles. 

As cities in other parts of the country increasingly feel the effects of the migrant surge, their political leaders have grown more and more agitated. 

With New York struggling to accommodate 60,000 migrants in the city’s care, Mayor Eric Adams has railed against President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat, and proposed that single migrants be kicked out of city shelters after 30 days. 

“This issue will destroy New York City,” Adams said earlier this month. 

While Adams’ doomsday rhetoric was overblown, it did reflect an uneasiness among some residents of his city. 

If you want a prime example of how attitudes shift when immigration moves from a political abstraction to a daily reality, consider Biden’s policy stances. 

“We’re a nation that says, ‘If you want to flee and you’re fleeing oppression, you should come,’” Biden said to asylum seekers during a 2019 presidential debate, when he was trying to win the support of his party’s progressive base. 

In March 2021, two months into his presidency, Biden warned those very same asylum seekers: “Don’t come over.”

As it had for César Chávez half a century earlier, immigration was now hitting close to home for Biden.


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