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Border gained focus in 2018: Immigration, wall put Valley in national news

January 1, 2019

In 2018, the City of Brownsville and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley rocketed into the national spotlight as the region became ground zero for U.S. lawmakers and national media outlets covering family separation and more border wall development.

Foreshadowing what would become a contentious national debate, Vice President Mike Pence in February, along with Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan and Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz visited Hidalgo County for a photo opportunity as so many officials have throughout the years.

Roughly one month later, the American Civil Liberty Union made the first accusations that the government was separating immigrant children from their families and Congress passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that included $1.32 billion for 25 miles of border wall in Hidalgo County and another eight miles in Starr County.

By the end of March, all of the pieces were in place for a summer of unrest that placed a national spotlight on the Rio Grande Valley. The federal government began prosecuting all undocumented immigrants who crossed illegally into the United States, resulting in the separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents, many of whom were held in a large facility in Brownsville called Casa Padre, which is in an old Walmart, and is operated by the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs.

As spring turned to summer, speculation also began on what wildlife preserves, such as the National Butterfly Center in Mission, would be impacted and what more border wall would mean for the Rio Grande Valley’s sensitive environment and its status as a destination for environmental tourists from around the country and the world.

Then, as April arrived, Trump announced that he wanted to send the U.S. military to the border as the first caravan of migrants started making their way from Central America to the U.S. border. On April 5, Trump dispatched the National Guard to the Rio Grande Valley to assist U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

As April came to a close, Trump announced that he was sending more immigration attorneys, judges, prosecutors and asylum officers to the border in anticipation of the caravan of immigrants.

Meanwhile, as May began, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted for the first time publicly that the administration’s zero-tolerance policy toward immigrant was resulting in the separation of families. And while family separation began grabbing more and more headlines in May, CBP began posting multiple contracts to government websites seeking bids for border wall construction.

By June 5, Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkeley set off a chain of events by showing up unannounced to Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre in an attempt to visit children held in the facility. Instead of gaining access, Southwest Key Programs employees called the Brownsville Police Department on Merkeley, who used Facebook Live video to capture the entire incident, which went viral.

Ten days later, Southwest Key Programs allowed a small group of reporters with large national media outlets to tour Casa Padre, providing the first glimpse inside the secretive nonprofit. Local media were excluded from the visit.

As scrutiny over family separations increased in June, the government revealed that as of that month, approximately 2,000 children had been separated from their families under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance approach to prosecuting illegal immigration.

On Father’s Day, Merkeley again returned to Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre. This time he was joined by five other lawmakers, including Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson. The next day, more members of Congress, including Brownsville Rep. Filemon Vela toured Casa Padre. All the while, swarms of national reporters waited just off the property waiting for interviews with lawmakers who toured the facility.

Following a two-day whirlwind of lawmakers touring Casa Padre, Vela hosted an hours-long roundtable on family separations that was again packed with dozens of national reporters trying to get information on what the lawmakers saw inside Casa Padre. That roundtable turned into more of a soap box for lawmakers critical of family separations with two calling on Trump to visit the Rio Grande Valley to see first-hand how family separations played out on the border.

A day after that roundtable, on June 21, Trump signed an executive order ending family separation, though the zero-tolerance policy continued. One day after Trump signed that executive order, First Lady Melania Trump traveled to McAllen for a firsthand look at a facility that housed children separated from their families.

Meanwhile, with all eyes focused on family separation in the Rio Grande Valley, CBP announced it would begin seizing private land for the border wall and reports that asylum seekers began camping out on international bridges in Brownsville began to surface.

The month of June would wind down with U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Ryan Patrick holding a press conference in the federal courthouse in Brownsville on June 27 where he wanted to set the record straight for reporters that zero-tolerance prosecutions would continue. That same day, the Cameron County Commissioners Court passed a resolution denouncing family separations.

One day later, a federal judge in San Diego set a hard deadline for the federal government to reunite children separated from their families. The process would be wrought with controversy as lawyers with the ACLU discovered that some parents had already been deported and that the government lost track of nearly 1,500 children.

To close out the month of June, hundreds of protesters descended on the federal courthouse in Brownsville in an ACLU-organized event, pushing their way to the very doors of the courthouse in a chaotic event that ended peacefully. And the day before that event, DHS Secretary Nielsen made a secretive trip to the Port Isabel Detention Center and to at least one Southwest Key Programs facility in Brownsville, which her office would only confirm days later.

National focus on Brownsville because of family separations began to wane in July when CBP began sending border wall letters to landowners in Hidalgo County. And while the national media’s attention went elsewhere, a county judge ordered an investigation into Casa Padre to determine whether the children held there were in need of legal guardians. That investigation ended in September after the court-appointed investigators were able to tour the facility and ask questions of federal lawyers. Like Merkeley, though, Southwest Key Programs initially turned the investigators away even though, unlike Merkeley, the investigators had a court-order to enter the facility.

Then in October, there was more border wall news, this time in Cameron County, where the structure has stood for a decade. On Oct. 10, DHS announced that it would fill in 11 gaps in border fencing in Cameron County.

And Oct. 26, the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville made its opposition to the border wall known after the federal government announced it planned to seize Diocese property to build a wall, including the land where the historic La Lomita Chapel sits in Hidalgo County.

As that month came to a close, and as the migrant caravan made its way to Tijuana, Mexico, Trump announced that he ordered the Pentagon to dispatch active-duty troops to the border. The first sight of those troops in Brownsville occurred Oct. 30, when high-ranking officials were spotted at the Gateway International Bridge. That same day, CBP started a series of crowd control exercises on the bridge where CBP officers clad in SWAT-like gear with shields could be seen by the public. Hearing helicopters flying over downtown Brownsville became routine.

By Nov. 1, the military was in the Rio Grande Valley installing concertina wire around bridges in Cameron and Hidalgo County and on Nov. 3, a large amount of troops arrived in Harlingen. Eventually, the military would set up a camp in Donna. The entire operation was dubbed "Operation Faithful Patriot," a moniker the Pentagon dropped one day after the mid-term elections.

The year would close with another high-profile visit to the Rio Grande Valley, this time it was former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who visited troops in Donna. That same day, CBP announced it awarded $167 million for eight miles of border wall in Cameron County. The month of November would close with Trump threatening to close the border and construction beginning on border gates in Cameron County and surveyors being spotted at the National Butterfly Center in Mission. By the beginning of December, the Pentagon began to drawdown troops stationed at the border.

And as the year came to a close, it seemed as if the year ended right where it started with Trump and the Republicans sparring with Democrats over funding for the border wall in a dispute that again partially shutdown the federal government, just like it did in January of 2018.

mreagan@brownsvilleherald.com

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