Arrival Of Thousands Of Troops At Southern U.S. Border Incites Both Fear And Calm
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Pentagon says 2,800 troops have deployed to Texas. They are part of a total force of at least 5,200 that President Trump ordered to the southern border in late October in response to a large group of Central American migrants headed north together. Carson Frame of Texas Public Radio and the American Homefront Project traveled to the border town of McAllen, Texas, to see what the troops are doing.
CARSON FRAME, BYLINE: Signs of a troop presence in the Rio Grande Valley are not hard to find. Just look to the ports of entry.
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FRAME: The Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge spans the border between Donna, Texas, and Rio Bravo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. It's now flanked by what looks like a military encampment. In a field bordered by razor wire, square green tents sit neatly in rows. A uniformed man stands watch behind the wire while others move around inside.
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FRAME: And, every few minutes, sand-colored vehicles rumble in and out. About 20 miles west, people crossing at the McAllen-Hidalgo port of entry have noticed concertina wire on the riverbank and strung up on the international bridge. Active-duty troops set it up recently. Some locals, like Eba Altubarz, have seen them doing military drills in the area of the bridge.
EBA ALTUBARZ: (Through interpreter) Yeah. They've been doing simulations. They get formed up, lined up, and they're going through the drills. But I don't exactly know what they're doing as far as exercises are concerned.
FRAME: Altubarz is a Mexican citizen living in Reynosa, directly across the bridge. Speaking through an interpreter, she says she crosses once or twice a week to go shopping. Altubarz says, with the growing number of migrants waiting to cross the border and the arrival of troops, she's concerned it could lead to conflict.
ALTUBARZ: (Through interpreter) I'm really worried, so I'm watching TV to see what's going on. I'm worried about violence.
FRAME: But Roberto Ruiz, another Reynosa resident, says the troops are a stabilizing presence.
ROBERTO RUIZ: (Through interpreter) I think troops along the border is good because we have a lot of people coming from Central America and a lot of people that come with gangs. We have problems with them. There's going to be problems in Mexico.
FRAME: In neighboring Texas towns, like Weslaco, some Americans also welcome the troops, who have had a presence on the roads, at the local airport and on TV. Thelma Anciso has children in the military and says she feels calmer knowing that active-duty soldiers are patrolling the ports.
THELMA ANCISO: They're protecting us. It feels good. I feel secure with them.
FRAME: Mike Seifert of the ACLU, who lives in Brownsville, says many residents along the border assume the troops are there because of a pressing threat, which he says doesn't really exist. It's like the old proverb, he says. Where there's smoke...
MIKE SEIFERT: There's got to be fire.
FRAME: Seifert says some of his fellow activists conducted a survey in the Texas border town of Edinburg.
SEIFERT: And, essentially, the question was, do you feel safe? And the response, a lot of them, like, were, no. And why is that? Have you witnessed or been a victim of crime? And they were like, no, no, no. But we see so many troops and police and Border Patrol. Something must be going on.
FRAME: A handful of activist groups in McAllen have been protesting what they call the militarization of the border. Scott Nicol co-chairs the Sierra Club Borderlands team. He says the deployment is a political stunt designed to whip up fear.
SCOTT NICOL: You know, you have helicopter landings. You have troops in riot gear, marching across the bridge. That's all being done I think for show, you know? They have an audience of one in the White House who has said that he thinks the concertina wire looks beautiful.
FRAME: Pentagon officials say the active-duty troops will be working to support the Border Patrol with engineering, transportation and medical care. The Pentagon says the troops will have no direct contact with migrants crossing the border. Five public affairs units have also been deployed to distribute photos and video.
For NPR News, I'm Carson Frame in McAllen, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.