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In border town, World Cup watchers balance team pride, anxiety about US

Why We Wrote This

Living on the border means living with things most Americans don’t, and to live with them without batting an eye. Recently, though, those tensions of border life feel as if they’ve been dialed to 11 – and even a beloved sports event isn't providing a respite.

Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP
A migrant who traveled with the annual caravan of Central American migrants juggles a soccer ball where the group set up camp to wait for access to request asylum in the US, outside the El Chaparral port of entry building at the US-Mexican border in Tijuana, Mexico, May 1.

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When a World Cup rolls around, it usually means a complex and emotional decision for most soccer fans in the Texas border city of Laredo: a choice between allegiance to the country of their birth, the United States, and the country of their heritage, Mexico. Not so this year, with the US team not having qualified. Instead, border communities including Laredo have been caught up in the confusion and emotion of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy, which calls for the prosecution of everyone caught crossing the border illegally. While President Trump ended by executive order last week the forced separation of families caught crossing the border illegally, and a federal judge this week ordered that the families be reunited within one month, confusion has persisted. Amid it all, border residents – who had grown used to the post-9/11 ramp up in border security infrastructure and rhetoric – are getting caught up in the emotion and confusion of the new crisis. “We need more [border] security, but not this way,” says Gerard Juarez, who was watching Mexico play South Korea Saturday. Right now, “this is another vision of the United States.”

Late Saturday morning, a trickle of people wearing green and white Mexico jerseys trickled into the TKO Sports Bar & Grill, seven minutes from the Texas-Mexico border, its doors and windows shuttered to keep out the steadily climbing heat.

Just inside the door, a life-size cardboard cut-out of four Mexican players greeted fans, one with a hole instead of a face, and some supporters stopped to briefly fill the vacancy next to the smiling likeness of star striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. Some finished up breakfast as the national anthems played, while others headed straight across the freshly mopped floor to join the crowd watching El Tri take on South Korea. The whistle for kick-off triggered muted clapping and cheers.

When a World Cup rolls around, it has in recent years meant a complex and emotional decision for most soccer fans in Laredo. The city is 95 percent Hispanic, the largest percentage of any large metro area in the country, and fans are often torn over their allegiance to the country of their birth and the country of their heritage. Daily life on the border, meanwhile, is relatively calm, with residents used to being surrounded by border agents and daily shoppers from Mexico, and used to heated border-security rhetoric from Washington.

This time around, though, World Cup allegiance has been made simpler here by the United States team’s absence from the quadrennial soccer showpiece. But the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy – the decision to prosecute everyone caught crossing the border illegally, including asylum-seekers – and now-ended separation of migrant families, has disrupted and complicated routines on the border. Border residents, who had grown used to the post-9/11 ramp up in security infrastructure and rhetoric, say they are getting caught up in the emotion and confusion of this new crisis.

It’s half-time, and Mexico is leading thanks to a penalty kick by striker Carlos Vela. Vanessa Salinas, a lifelong Laredoan, mentions that there are “a lot of cops in Laredo right now.”

“I don’t mind,” she adds, but “they’re keeping people away who they don’t have a reason to.”

“I just think it’s really mean,” she continues about the now-discontinued policy of separating children from their parents. “Mexican, American, or whatever, you should be able to stay with your family.”

A week of confusion

Living on the border means living with things most other Americans don’t, and to live with those things without batting an eye. Shopping downtown means rubbing elbows with the thousands of people who cross from Mexico daily to work and shop. US Border Patrol vans roll by with the regularity of mail trucks. Watching the news means watching politicians who don’t live here talk about how dangerous your town is.

In recent weeks, however, those aspects of border life feel like they’ve been dialed to 11. Even the weather has been amplified, with McAllen experiencing a 100-year rainfall event and a 250-year rainfall event in the space of a few days last week, prompting a state of emergency wholly unrelated to the border crisis.

“The rain’s coming down, the airport’s saying, ‘We don’t know how long we’re going to stay open, and by the way the first lady is coming,’ ” recounts Jim Darling, the mayor of McAllen. “That was an interesting morning.”

That visit occurred shortly after President Trump signed an executive order June 20 stopping the separation of migrant families who cross the border. A week later there have been more developments, but confusion persists. Nationwide, 130 events are planned in protest of the border policy Saturday.

  • The executive order said nothing about the more than 2,300 migrant children who had already been separated from their parents. Last weekend the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a statement describing how the government “is working to reunite [children] with their families.”
  • On Monday, Mr. Trump announced via Twitter that he wanted to strip due-process rights from migrants, which legal experts say would be a violation of the US Consitution.
  • A federal judge in California ordered the government to reunite all of the families within 30 days. The deadline is within two weeks for children under 5.
  • Reports emerged that the Pentagon is making preparations to house 20,000 unaccompanied minors in tent camps on two military bases in Texas.

Amid all those orders, the week has been full of conflicting reports about how officials on the border are responding. Border Patrol agents temporarily stopped referring immigration cases to federal prosecutors, while another agency stated at one point that prosecutions of immigrants with families had been suspended, The New York Times reported. Meanwhile, the increase in immigration cases being brought to federal court has seen other border crimes like drug smuggling being prosecuted in state courts – California being one example where drug cases have “skyrocketed” in state courts in recent months.

Most recently, it emerged that 19 investigators for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent a letter to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last week saying the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration has limited their ability to perform other duties, such as investigating drug and human trafficking and cyber crimes, and calling on her to separate their duties from immigration enforcement.

A ‘much more emotional’ border

In McAllen the confusion has even got to the locals, with some contacting Mayor Darling on social media or by email blaming the city government for separating migrant families.

“I don’t read them too closely,” he says. “I try not to get into an argument with people.”

The city was also at the epicenter of the 2014 surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014, but this current crisis is “much more emotional,” he says.

“The criticism we got [in 2014] was anti-immigrant criticism, ‘Why are you helping these people?’ ” he adds. “This time we’ve got criticized for being part of the separations, and neither are necessarily true or pleasant.”

A concrete impact Darling says he has noticed, more a result of the Trump administration’s immigration policy generally than the zero-tolerance policy specifically, is a negative economic one. Sales tax revenues have been down for 24 months, he says, starting before Trump took office – a big deal given sales tax contributes more to the city’s general fund than any other revenue source. Actions like requesting the National Guard be sent to protect the border, along with the consistent messaging from Trump and his supporters about how dangerous the border is, have been giving potential investors pause. Violence on the Mexican side of the border has also been a factor.

“When they’re sending troops down to protect the border, and President Trump is saying the border isn’t safe,” Darling says, “we’re trying to attract businesses and … those things have a direct [negative] impact.”

Back in Laredo, Ms. Salinas also thinks about the economy when she thinks about the thousands of families seeking asylum at the border, most fleeing gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

She works three jobs – as an accountant, an announcer, and a D.J. – and says the American dream “is not what they think it is.”

“It’s more expensive, it’s hard, it’s another language,” she adds. “If I was a mom, I wouldn’t come to this country for a better life.”

Mexico went on to beat South Korea, the bar erupting into cheers when Hernández steered in a second goal in the 66th minute. After the final whistle, when most of the fans had filtered back out into the boiling midday sun, Gerard Juarez stayed in his seat.

Visiting from Portland, Texas, and watching the game with his girlfriend’s nephew, he says in Spanish that the family separations were “immoral.”

“We need more [border] security, but not this way,” he adds. “There’s violence in their countries.... They’re not criminals.”

Right now, he continues, “this is another vision of the United States.”

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