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As Biden and Trump visit the border, many Texas residents feel ignored

By Zach Despart and William Melhado, The Texas Tribune

As Biden and Trump visit the border, many Texas residents feel ignored” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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BROWNSVILLE — Wide blades of sugar cane, verdant after late winter rains, stretch in neat rows toward the horizon in this swath of the Rio Grande Valley.

For more than a century, this lucrative crop has thrived in the region’s tropical climate. But soon there will be nowhere to process it, ensuring the death of the Texas sugar industry.

Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc. announced last week that it would shut down the state’s last sugar mill, citing a lack of water flowing into the irrigation canals that crisscross the region. The co-op of 86 valley farmers blame the federal government for not forcing Mexico to uphold its end of a 1944 international treaty under which it must share a third of the flow of the Rio Conchos, a tributary that meets the Rio Grande west of Big Bend.

The water crisis threatens other crops, like citrus and melons, which have made agriculture one of the valley’s most important industries. Thousands of jobs are at stake. Yet the issue did not merit so much as a mention when the region was thrust in the national spotlight Thursday.

In a span of several hours, two U.S. presidents visited the Texas border with Mexico, a reminder of the region’s importance in the fractured national debate over immigration and border security.

In Brownsville, President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass a bipartisan immigration bill that he said would deter migrants from crossing into the country illegally and expedite processing for those with legitimate asylum claims.

Three hundred miles northwest in Eagle Pass, former and perhaps future President Donald Trump stuck to a familiar script in which he characterized migrants as criminals overrunning the country. Trump praised Gov. Greg Abbott’s strict border security efforts, including a state law empowering police to arrest migrants who cross the border illegally that a federal judge blocked just hours earlier.

But for residents in these border communities, the latest volleys on an increasingly polarized issue that may define this year’s presidential election, were a missed opportunity to acknowledge how border policies affect them. Too often, they said, national leaders use the border merely as a dusty backlot for politicking to audiences elsewhere in the country.

“Every single time an elected official comes down from D.C., we see the same imagery,” said Dani Marrero Hi, an organizer with La Unión de Pueblo Entero, which advocates for colonia residents. “They’re walking along the border wall, they’re wearing sunglasses, they’re talking with Border Patrol, they go on the boat ride … and then they leave. We’d hope that President Biden would do a different visit.”

Neither Biden nor Trump held any public events during their brief visits, opting for carefully choreographed events with local officials from their respective political parties.

The Cowley Sugar House is seen Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, at the Cowley Sugar House in Santa Rosa. After two years of drought and a dwindling water supply has forced Texas’ last sugar mill to close after more than 50 years of operation.
Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers’ sugar mill in Santa Rosa on Feb. 29, 2024. After two years of drought, a dwindling water supply has forced Texas’ last sugar mill to close after more than 50 years of operation. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune
Shop & Maintenance Engineer Gerardo “Jerry” Lara walks through a boiling room, used to refine molasses from raw cane juice, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, at the Cowley Sugar House in Santa Rosa. After two years of drought and a dwindling water supply has forced Texas’ last sugar mill to close after more than 50 years of operation.
Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc. engineer Geraldo “Jerry” Lara walks through a boiling room, used to refine molasses from raw cane juice, on Thursday in Santa Rosa. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

In Eagle Pass, Trump was flanked by Abbott, who made a national name for himself by transporting migrants to Democrat-led cities outside Texas and using state National Guard troops in a standoff with federal officials over border security. Trump and Abbott did not speak about the impacts increased border enforcement presence has had in the town.

[Donald Trump says Greg Abbott is “absolutely” on vice president short list]

In Brownsville, Biden pledged federal support for the deadly wildfires in the Texas Panhandle. He praised the hardworking men and women of Customs and Border Protection. But he said nothing about the water crisis affecting farms.

Groves of oranges, grapefruit and lemons grow alongside cane fields throughout the region, which in reality is not a valley but a flat, fertile river delta where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.

These crops flourish in the heat and humidity but to grow here, unlike rainy Florida, the dry South Texas climate forces farmers to rely on irrigation. The United States and Mexico share water rights to the Rio Grande. But Mexico has fallen far behind on its water payments, even as its reservoirs on the Rio Conchos in Chihuahua hold enough to pay the balance.

The lack of water has left farmers no choice but to plant fewer crops, leaving fields fallow and yields lower. But there is only so much they can do while still turning a profit.

The co-op’s behemoth mill in Santa Rosa produced less than 500,000 tons of sugar in the most recent season, a 75% decline over a peak six years ago. CEO Sean Brashear blames the federal government for not forcing Mexico to pay its water debt, a tab he accused the country of running up with unsustainable use.

“It got to the point where (Mexico) was turning desert into oases… green and lush, almond trees, while we couldn’t even get enough water,” Bresear said. “At some point, (Washington) should have intervened.”

Brashear has given layoff notices to its 463 employees — all of the harvesters, drivers, boilers, chemists and engineers who execute every step of the complex process of turning cane stalks into raw sugar, which the co-op ships on barges to a Louisiana factory to be refined into the granulated sugar sold in grocery stores.

President and CEO of Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers poses for a photo Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, at the Cowley Sugar House in Santa Rosa. After two years of drought and a dwindling water supply has forced Texas’ last sugar mill to close after more than 50 years of operation.
President and CEO of Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Sean Brashear at Cowley Sugar House in Santa Rosa. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune
Apolinar Cuevas uses an acetylene torch to shorten a length of pipe Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, at the Cowley Sugar House in Santa Rosa. After two years of drought and a dwindling water supply has forced Texas’ last sugar mill to close after more than 50 years of operation.
Apolinar Cuevas shortens a length of pipe at the sugar mill in Santa Rosa. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Rey Felix Jr. and his two sons, Rey III and Damien, are among those losing their jobs. They live together in La Villa, a town just west of the sugar mill that’s home to many employees.

Rey Felix III, 22, said his father encouraged him to work hard at the mill, and he regularly logged 80-hour weeks. Now he’s unsure what he will do next, as there are few comparable jobs available locally. He recently obtained a security clearance necessary to work on offshore oil rigs.

Speaking before the president’s arrival, he said it would be disappointing for Biden to come all the way to the Rio Grande Valley without addressing the water problem that threatens the livelihood of so many here.

“It’d be a bummer because there’s going to be a lot of people having trouble looking for work,” Rey Felix III. “We’re panicking because we’re used to coming to work here.”

Geraldo “Jerry” Lara, the factory engineer, got a bad feeling when he noticed the co-op began to delay repairs on equipment in recent years. A 22-year employee initially hired as a two-week temp, Lara loved how sugar growers from all over the world would visit to study the mill’s techniques.

Operators Gilbert Zamorano and Romero Ortiz take a break inside one of the sugar mill’s operating stations Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, at the Cowley Sugar House in Santa Rosa. After two years of drought and a dwindling water supply has forced Texas’ last sugar mill to close after more than 50 years of operation.
Operators Gilbert Zamorano and Romero Ortiz take a break inside one of the sugar mill’s operating stations. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents inspect concertina wire along the U.S.-Mexico border after a migrant swam across the Rio Grande Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in Brownsville. President Joe Biden visited Brownsville on Thursday, receiving briefings from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, USCIS, and ICE along the border before giving remarks at the Brownsville Border Patrol Station.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents inspect concertina wire along the Texas-Mexico border on Feb. 29, 2024 after a migrant swam across the Rio Grande in Brownsville. President Joe Biden visited Brownsville on Thursday, receiving briefings from federal officials before delivering remarks at a Brownsville Border Patrol Station. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

He said successive federal administrations, not just Biden’s, are at fault for letting the water crisis get this bad. Lara said he is frustrated that no matter whom the sugar growers lobbied in Washington, they could not get the State Department to take a more aggressive approach with Mexico.

Many farmers who belong to the sugar co-op can switch to crops that demand less water. But Cameron and Hidalgo counties were in extreme drought conditions as recently as September, and another prolonged period without sufficient rainfall or water from Mexico threatens the future of all agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley, said Dante Galeazzi, president of the Texas International Produce Association.

“Citrus and vegetables, for sure, would be among the next dominoes. Rural and municipal water systems that depend on agricultural water deliveries. And after that, it could be industries like cattle,” said Galeazzi, who lives in Mission.

[In two Texas border towns, Biden and Trump push for different immigration approaches]

Strained emergency responders

In February, the Eagle Pass Fire Department retrieved 15 bodies from the Rio Grande. Firefighters with the small outfit must navigate steep banks, fences and razor wire before they can recover a body from the river or rescue someone from the swift current.

In recent years, as the number of migrants crossing this part of the U.S.-Mexico border has surged, the agency has become inundated with calls ranging from pedestrians hit by cars along rural highways to rescuing children from the river.

The dramatic increase in calls has coincided with the transformation of Eagle Pass into the epicenter of the state and national immigration debate. Texas has poured billions into the governor’s Operation Lone Star, turning the city’s largest green space, Shelby Park, into a razor-gated compound.

Meanwhile, locals say the federal government has forgotten about their community and left the city’s firefighters dealing with its expensive and deadly mess.

People wait for former President Donald Trump's motorcade at Shelby Park in downtown Eagle Pass on Feb. 29, 2024.
People wait, expecting for former President Donald Trump’s motorcade, near Shelby Park in downtown Eagle Pass on Feb. 29, 2024. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune
Amerika Garcia Grewal speaks at a Border Coalition press conference in downtown Eagle Pass ahead of former President Donald Trump's visit to Shelby Park on Feb. 29, 2024.
Amerika Garcia Grewal speaks at a Border Coalition press conference in downtown Eagle Pass ahead of former President Donald Trump’s visit to Shelby Park on Thursday. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

“We all know this is a political showdown of state versus federal government, and instead of helping our border communities, we are crippling them,” Karen Gonzalez, Val Verde County organizer for The Border Organization, which trains community leaders, told reporters Thursday morning.

South Texas has historically been a Democratic stronghold. But four years ago, Trump performed better than expected in Texas border counties. While Hillary Clinton won those counties by 33 percentage points in 2016, Biden won them by around 17 percentage points in 2020.

In Maverick County, home to Eagle Pass, Clinton won by a blowout 56 points eight years ago. By 2020, Biden carried it by just 9 points.

As Trump and Abbott toured the narrow section of the border in downtown Eagle Pass Thursday, residents lined Main Street hoping to catch a glimpse of the former president, who has all but clinched the Republican nomination to run again this fall.

Martha Long traveled with her children from nearby Del Rio, where Trump flew in. She waited two hours to see the GOP leader, but Trump and Abbott skipped the crowded streets for a more covert entrance to the park, which is inaccessible to the public. Long was disappointed, but unbothered.

“He isn’t perfect, but at least he’s trying his best,” Long said of Trump.

She said Biden has ignored Americans — a common sentiment of those in Eagle Pass welcoming the former president.

Since the state took over Shelby Park, officials say migrants have been dissuaded from crossing near downtown. Instead, migrants cross upstream or downstream of the park, which still falls within Fire Chief Manuel Mello’s jurisdiction.

The additional calls for crises involving migrants come at a cost to the city, Mello said. Overtime pay, wear and tear on vehicles and a lack of reimbursement for emergency calls, has cost Eagle Pass over $1 million in a year, Mello estimates.

Mello said the state has provided some support to ease the pressure, though most grants through Operation Lone Star are directed toward law enforcement agencies. Last April, Mello’s department received a $400,000 grant from the governor’s office, along with an airboat and ATV to help firefighters conduct rescues on the river. But immigration isn’t a state’s responsibility, he noted.

“This is a federal issue, just like when there’s a hurricane they go in to help out. Why are they not helping the fire department?” Mello said. “The federal government left us holding the bag.”

Mello testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee last month to discuss the impact of border crossings on the city’s social services. He doesn’t put the blame squarely on Biden, rather the federal government as a whole, which he said has a responsibility to take action on immigration.

Firefighter EMTs return from a failed water rescue, leaving a group of migrants stranded on an island in the Rio Grande, after the boat’s motor failed against the water’s current in Eagle Pass on Feb. 04, 2024.
Firefighter EMTs return from a failed water rescue, leaving a group of migrants stranded on an island in the Rio Grande, after the boat’s motor failed against the water’s current in Eagle Pass on Feb. 4, 2024. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune
Firefighter EMTs return from a failed water rescue, leaving a group of migrants stranded on an island in the Rio Grande, after the boat’s motor failed against the water’s current in Eagle Pass on Feb. 04, 2024.
In February, the Eagle Pass Fire Department retrieved 15 bodies from the Rio Grande. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Biden earlier this year backed a bipartisan bill seeking to overhaul the nation’s asylum system and enable presidents to immediately deport migrants at the border when immigration agents are overwhelmed. But the legislation died in the U.S. Senate after Trump lobbied Republicans to oppose it, in part so he could campaign on immigration.

Kerri Talbot, executive director of the advocacy group Immigration Hub, said the Biden administration has attempted to get money to local communities through the federal government’s Shelter and Services Program, but Democrats and Republicans are “stuck in a wrestling match” over border issues.

Carlos Rodriguez, an EMT with the Eagle Pass fire department, has family in town and in Piedras Negras across the river. He said the two are basically one big city and people cross the border to eat out, go shopping, buy groceries — that is, if there aren’t long lines because one of the two bridges in town is closed.

On Thursday afternoon, after responding to a call about a migrant with a broken ankle, Rodriguez said the enormous range of incidents he and his team handle is exhausting. In larger communities, like San Antonio, emergency responders are more specialized.

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A flag which reads “never surrender,” bearing former President Donald Trump’s mugshot is reflected on a shop window in downtown Eagle Pass ahead of his visit to Shelby Park. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune
Firefighter EMT Carlos Rodriguez sits in the passenger seat of a fire truck responding to a motor vehicle accident in downtown Eagle Pass becuase all five ambulances were already dispatched to other incidents on Feb. 29, 2024.
Firefighter EMT Carlos Rodriguez sits in the passenger seat of a fire truck responding to a motor vehicle accident in downtown Eagle Pass on Thursday. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

The 62-person Eagle Pass department is spread across the 1,300 square miles of Maverick County, including over 60 miles of the Rio Grande, and every incident falls to the small outfit.

The scenes of mangled bodies of migrants hit by trucks on county roads and corpses of young children in the Rio Grande witnessed by his first responders have laid bare an urgent need to provide mental health services, Mello said. Nonprofits have offered to provide help out, but he’s working on another state grant for $150,000 to train emergency responders on critical incident stress management.

While trying to recall one particularly hectic day last year when Rodriguez and his team retrieved seven bodies from the river, he asked the other first responders eating lunch what time of year that was.

“I don’t remember, they all kinda blend together,” someone responded.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/29/texas-border-eagle-pass-brownsville-trump-biden/.

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