Val Verde County is like a lot of South Texas counties: sparsely populated, rugged, dry, and vast. If you’ve never been there, well, I’m not sure there’s much reason to go. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for me.
I happen to think places like this are the best places in the world: places where you can feel the thick heat seep into your skin in the hour before dawn; places where existence must be earned; places that were fought for and over by Rangers, Indians, and Mexicans alike; places settled by desperate men, avaricious speculators, and hopeful families casting their lots at the ends of the world; places where the midday sun is an anvil, and the rock beneath your feet a furnace; places where Christmas Day is warm and sunny, and there’s nothing better mid-afternoon than some tortillas — made with manteca of course, flipped by seared bare fingers on the stovetop — and salted Falfurrias butter, enjoyed with a Coke and crushed ice.
It’s also ground zero for the border crisis. Illegal immigration threatens lives and the way of life here.
At the heart of Val Verde County is the town of Del Rio. It isn’t a metropolis, maybe 50,000 souls or so, but it has enough, and it has enough history to engage the visitor — and to keep some people there for a lifetime.
At the immigration townhall we participated in on Friday evening, I said to general agreement that there’s a way of life in South Texas. Well, Del Rio is a pretty good example of that way of life. There’s a city center of sorts, surrounded by vast and rugged countryside, canyon-strewn and rocky, bordered on the southern side by the Rio Grande. Families will go into the same line of work here: you’ll find whole clans that ranch, or own property, or work in law enforcement of various types. Children who leave — for school, for work — will often enough return, especially when they have children of their own, and realize they want the same growing-up for them they had for themselves. Land holdings will often enough turn out to be generations old.
We stayed on a ranch that, I learned at breakfast on the last day, was acquired well over a century past by the current owner’s direct ancestor. That ancestor got the property and was shortly thereafter shot dead, in broad daylight, in Del Rio, by a county judge. The judge went on trial for murder — and was acquitted.
But the property was passed down. That’s South Texas for you. Like I said, a way of life.
That way of life is under threat. I’m no stranger to the border, nor to South Texas: I know the Rio Grande Valley pretty well, and Laredo better. I’ve crossed the border on the Los Ebanos ferry, lending a hand as we drew upon the rope stretching from bank to bank. I’ve spent time in San Ygnacio. I’ve sat on the bluff at Roma — my grandfather’s hometown — and listened to gunfire in Ciudad Aleman on the other side. I’ve even visited the old La Lomita chapel in the Anzalduas park, down in Hidalgo Count — and run into a man, soaking wet and with aquatic vegetation stuck to his shirt, fresh out of swimming the river. He was fortunate: there’s a diversion dam nearby, a spot apt to drown swimmers. He was also unfortunate: after passing me by and exchanging startled greetings, he was met by a swarm of Border Patrol officers. The Rio Grande Valley is thickly populated on both sides, and therefore strongly patrolled.
That’s why Val Verde County, and the vast Texas lands of the old despoblado — a realm the Spanish considered too harsh to settle — are now seeing an extraordinary influx of migrants. What we learned across 36 hours in the county — talking with the sheriff, talking with Border Patrol officers and Border Patrol veterans, and most of all talking to the men and women who have made their lives in this part of Texas — was shocking, even to me. Illegal immigration has come and gone for years here. But now it’s different. Now it’s existential. And now it demands something more than aid packages to Central America, disbursed by a peripatetic vice president of the United States.
There’s a headline in today’s New York Times: “U.S. Aid to Central America Hasn’t Slowed Migration. Can Kamala Harris?” It seems like a setup for a swift application of Betteridge’s law of headlines, which states that any headline phrased as a question can be answered with “No.”
Still, the Vice President’s assumption of the migration/Mexico/Central American policy portfolio — driving her first official foreign trips in just a few days — isn’t doomed to failure just because an industry in-joke on headline writing is determinative. It’s doomed to failure because American policymaking is trapped in premises wholly inadequate to the times and circumstances.
I’ll have more on our trip tomorrow, when I’ll tell the stories of others — not just me.
For now, I’ll leave you with this: This isn’t just about South Texas, although I love South Texas and I ask your forgiveness for my partiality toward it, and toward Texas at large. This is about America. This is about a nation — a good country, to be sure — that is surrendering its sovereignty and failing its imperative to protect the lives and liberties of its own citizens.
Who is going to act? The federal government won’t — will Texas?