SAN ELIZARIO, Texas—Residents of this hardscrabble town on the Mexican border are feeling jumpy and under siege. Since 9/11, border immigration enforcement and drug interdiction have been swept into the war on terror, with chilling effects.
One recent night an armed skybox with a night-vision camera loomed over backyards, manned by a soldier returned from Iraq near the Kuwait border. His partner packed a Beretta, with a couple of ropes of extra ammunition around his neck. They are among 6,000 National Guard soldiers sent to the border in President Bush’s Operation Jump Start.
At Ray Carrillo’s welding yard, neighbors talk about the Guard. They also talk about citizen militias like the Minutemen—a local one is called the Border Regulators—which have appeared. And they talk about the sheriff, who detained more than 800 undocumented persons at roadblocks earlier this year, and turned them over to the Border Patrol. Deputies even asked U.S. citizens who looked Mexican to present papers, according to residents who say they were asked.
One day during the sheriff’s roadblocks, Carrillo, a U.S. Navy veteran, stood amid machinery and tankers under repair and barking dogs. He pulled out his cell phone and called the Spanish-language TV station in El Paso as neighbors and workmen were being picked off. It was a cry for help or at least for some attention from the wider world.
“I’ve lived here 24 years, and there’s been nothing like this before,” says Carrillo, a 36-year-old father of two.
This part of San Elizario began as a rough colonia, unimproved lots where families have seen water come to houses only in the last few years. Progress in making colonias a decent place to live has come hard, but now people are scared. Households have always been a mix of citizens, legal residents and undocumented relatives. In other colonias east of El Paso—with names like Agua Dulce, Sparks, Horizon, Montana Vista—residents say during the months of the sheriff’s traffic stops they brought food and diapers to houses where fathers had been taken by authorities and mothers didn’t dare go into the streets. Priests reported churches vacant. A clinic usually bursting with the uninsured stood empty of families, the sick unattended.
Today those who are undocumented, and relatives, remain uneasy. Around San Elizario the occasional La-Z-Boy or old sofa in a yard sits empty. “People used to walk around more, used to walk down along the edge of the cotton field over there along the river for exercise, late in the day,” says mechanic Jessie Rubio, 46, a friend of Carrillo’s. Rubio’s 11-year-old son, Jose Luis, tinkered with a car engine, and a lone, white egret was the only other creature visible in the expanse to the line that marks the border.
“What if a Minuteman mistakes me and shoots me?” Rubio asked. Then there’s the Guard. “They can make a mistake with somebody taking a stroll, because now there’s too many guns and too many people. Somebody will say, ‘I’m an American, you can’t tell me what to do,’ and there’ll be trouble. Sometimes you get mad when you get asked so much for papers. You feel racism starting to climb. You can feel the tension.”
National Guard and Border Patrol spokesmen reiterate that soldiers have authority only to call in the Border Patrol, not to arrest suspicious persons. Yet on the ground, fear of running into a soldier and being challenged is greater than running into a Border Patrol agent. Partly this is because agents are familiar, but the soldiers are not. Partly it’s because residents see soldiers at war on TV every day, pictured amid explosions and in combat, then, disconcertingly, see them behind their back yards.
Residents say they are concerned that soldiers who are trained for war, or recently returned from war, may have a mind-set that doesn’t belong in the neighborhood. Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson told The Washington Post in October 2005 that 12 percent of returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan seen at Veterans Administration facilities suffered from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Suzanne Dennis, who served in Baghdad as a public affairs specialist with the Texas National Guard, dismisses anxiety about stressed-out soldiers on the line. “They just switch gears. If you can’t switch, you don’t belong there.”
Nevertheless, for those in houses near the line, living in the zone now brings a sensation of the ground shifting under their feet. “It just clicked,” says Carrillo about the moment when the roadblocks were in full swing and the Guard was beginning to arrive. “It’s illegal to ask somebody for papers without suspicion of a crime. It’s not right for people to be afraid to come out of their houses.” His wife wants to move, but Carrillo is deciding to stick around, staying in touch with rights groups, monitoring, listening, “protecting my rights, my kids, my neighbors.”
Neighbor Jessie Rubio votes, and says he is pleased when the Border Patrol busts drug runners, who, he says, “could hurt my son.” But Rubio feels less ownership of his neighborhood now, questions why it’s feeling like a front line and senses danger. “In a war situation you’re looking at people and asking, ‘Friend or foe?’”
Locals sometimes speak of an incident that happened almost a decade ago, but whose memory remains fresh.
In 1997 Marines in an anti-drug joint task force supporting the Border Patrol shot and killed an 18-year-old American named Esequiel Hernandez as he tended family goats in rural Redford, Texas. The Marines were never charged.
“You’re getting people coming in from different parts, the Guard and Minutemen, and here we all look the same,” worried Rubio. “In a war zone they don’t know who is who.”
New American Media Contributing Editor Mary Jo McConahay reports on the border for The Texas Observer. This is part two of two; the Planet published part one on Oct. 13.