Military deployment to Rio Grande Valley described as ‘theatrics’ by immigrant advocates

Armed civilian groups and government agencies have started stationing themselves at the border, training and preparing for what some perceive as the anticipation of violence as a Central American exodus traverses Mexico toward the US.

For immigrant and human rights advocates, it’s a cause for grave concern, especially when contextualized with the extensive anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions by President Trump. Indeed, one need only look at the recent events and developments to recognize this trend.

The morning of Oct. 26, President Trump vowed to send over 800 active-duty troops to the US/Mexico border. The very next day, in an interview with Fox News, when asked about what type of “scenarios” might lead to refugees being shot, US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen responded, “We do not have any intention right now to shoot at people, but they will be apprehended.”

Later that evening, news leaked that the Trump administration was exploring the possibility of an executive action that would categorically block Central Americans from exercising their legal right to seek asylum.

By Oct. 31, the number of potential troops to be deployed to the border had more than doubled from 800 to a figure potentially as high as 15,000 soldiers, a threat which President Trump later reiterated in an inflammatory speech the next day.

The speech was deemed so lacking in substantive policy information that it prompted CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets to cut away.

It was within that tumultuous context that the first troops set foot in the Rio Grande Valley. Amidst the sounds of helicopters flying over the border (and people’s homes), the online images that quickly surfaced on local Facebook newsfeeds of soldiers installing concertina fence at the Reynosa-Hidalgo International bridge, and sightings of soldiers in full-uniform shopping at local stores or driving their military Humvees on the highway, their presence was impossible to ignore.

Such quick developments have formed a fog of tension and confusion over the Valley, which immigrant and human rights advocates say that— although rooted in political games— could very well lead to real harm.

Efren Olivares is the Director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program of the Texas Civil Right Project (TCRP). Over the summer, he and his colleagues have provided dire legal support to hundreds of families separated at by Trump’s infamous “zero-tolerance” policy. In a phone interview with Neta, Olivares condemned the response displayed by CBP officers and the Trump administration.

“These are families. These are young people, old people, men, women, children,” he said. “There is no evidence that they have any weapons, that they pose any threat. It’s completely outrageous that the government is playing this like a video game and putting up these theatrics of training for combat. I don’t know what is going on portraying this militarized response to refugees.”

Rather than focusing their energies in findings ways to deny asylum-seekers the opportunity to make a claim or preparing for violence and chaos, Olivares said officials should be contemplating how to uphold the domestic and international rights of refugees arriving at the US southern border.

“Instead of sending 800 troops to the border, they should send additional asylum officers to process these families at the port-of-entry,” he said.

Christina Patiño Houle, network weaver of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, also believes that the response unfolding at the border is moving in the wrong direction. She believes the message being sent to Valley residents and others across the nation is clear. “We are preparing for violence,” Patiño Houle said.

John-Michael Torres, communications director of La Union del Pueblo Entero, agreed with Patiño Houle. He called the videos of troops at the ports of entry “gut-wrenching.”

“It’s an ugly picture that Trump is cynically using to divide us against each other in the lead up to a critical election,” Torres said. “But those of us on the border know the everyday acts of kindness and humanity border residents are displaying toward people who must leave their country.”

Even so, some worry about what might lay ahead.

“[Officers] get caught up in this rhetoric of hate and seeing these people as a threat,” Olivares said. “That worries me because it might lead to a violent response that is not necessary, that is not adequate or proper. But because of the message that top officials in the administration are sending [which depicts] these displaced people or refugees as a threat, then the line officers doing the work on the line might perceive them as a threat and react accordingly.”

Neither Olivares nor Patiño Houle finds much comfort in remarks indicating soldiers and officers would not use force unless the “need” for self-defense arose.

Both of them point to long-held advocate concerns regarding the lack of oversight and accountability governing officer misconduct cases. According to Patiño-Houle, what qualifies as “self-defense” can be extremely discretional. Cases in which agents have shot and killed teens for throwing rocks and, in some cases, unarmed migrants lend support to this view.

It is unclear when the migrants of the caravan will begin arriving at the US southern border, but estimates are that they are still weeks away from the border with many of the migrants splitting into smaller groups as they traverse Mexico.

“The main reason why these people are leaving is because they’re fleeing either extreme poverty and misery or death threats and violence in their country,” Olivares said. “That’s why they’re leaving, not because of what the U.S. says. As long as those conditions remain the same, they will continue to leave and flee.”

A CBP representative said the agency is “monitoring the situation and moving resources to prepare for the arrival of large groups throughout the Southwest Border. Some of the preparations do include exercises which may cause minor interruptions at some ports.”

Patiño Houle said that when the refugee caravan arrives at the US, it will require “a holistic effort” from everyone at the border. It’s not clear what steps CBP officials may take to create the infrastructure to provide humanitarian assistance and ensure fair and timely processing of asylum-seeker arriving at the border.