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Texas Border City Politically Divided

Oct 26, 2018
Originally published on October 26, 2018 11:33 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We have been on a road trip through the Texas 23rd Congressional District, which is a rare swing district in this very red state. It covers a long stretch of land that goes from outside El Paso all the way to San Antonio. We've been visiting different corners of the district, talking to voters about what's going through their minds ahead of the midterms. President Trump has made immigration a central issue in the upcoming vote, warning about the influx of migrants from Central America who are coming through Mexico towards the U.S.

The president hammered this point again during a rally in Houston earlier this week. But we wanted to know how the issue is playing here, along the border, which is where we are right now. I'm looking out over Lake Amistad, which connects to the Rio Grande River. That river is the natural barrier that separates the U.S. and Mexico. Amistad means friendship in Spanish, which is appropriate because, like other American border towns, life in Del Rio is woven together with the town on the other side, Acuna, Mexico.

AMANDA AGUERRE: We are family in this border.

MARTIN: This is Amanda Aguerre. Her family has lived around Del Rio for generations. And her house is just a five-minute drive to the border. And on the other side is Acuna.

AGUERRE: I don't look down to them. I am their equal because I grew up with them.

MARTIN: But you still don't want them to come here.

AGUERRE: I want them to come here. But I want them to come here the right way.

MARTIN: Amanda lives with her longtime partner, Ralph, who also grew up here.

AGUERRE: Would you like something - would you like some tea?

MARTIN: Yeah.

AGUERRE: OK, good. Everybody wants tea?

RALPH: She may be in a hot tea mood because it's kind of...

AGUERRE: Or hot tea.

MARTIN: I'd love some hot tea if that's...

MARTIN: Ralph and Amanda cross into Acuna a couple times a week.

What takes you there?

AGUERRE: I have friends, yes. And I have - I go shopping over there. I go to the dentist over there. I buy groceries over there.

MARTIN: Amanda has sympathy for people who are seeking a better life in the U.S. But she also has a lot of stories about people she says are gaming the system. She tells me she worked for a time at the local jail, where she talked with people who got caught coming over the border.

AGUERRE: I said, why do you keep coming back if you get busted? Oh, because I get my teeth cleaned, you know, my medicines.

MARTIN: So you think there are too many illegal immigrants who are exploiting the system.

AGUERRE: Yes, that's the part that I don't like. It makes me very angry.

MARTIN: What do you make of talk from President Trump when he says that he wants to build a wall that would separate Del Rio from Mexico?

AGUERRE: No - at - when they say separate, a wall - there is a wall. I don't think it holds anybody back. If you want to, you can get through.

MARTIN: Now, to be clear, in parts of the border near Del Rio, there's not a wall. There's a big, black fence. And in other areas, there is no manmade barrier at all.

JOE FRANK MARTINEZ: It's - it's rule. It's rugged terrain.

MARTIN: This is Joe Frank Martinez. He's been the sheriff here for the past 10 years. He is a tall man with weathered skin and white hair and a voice that says he's seen an awful lot in these harsh conditions.

MARTINEZ: People aren't prepared for that. We've had those instances where, you know, people have died out there. In the last six months, I think we've had three.

MARTIN: Over the past year he's taken an assortment of lawmakers from Washington, D.C., on a tour of the border, just like he's doing for us today. We drive along the dirt road that runs parallel to Mexico.

MARTINEZ: I think that before anybody starts talking about a border wall, they need to see it in its natural state. People up north think that it's a war zone out here, and it's actually not. To me, before you start throwing money at a problem, you have to identify the problem.

MARTIN: To him, the problem is an immigration system that's been broken for 50 years. And he says it can't be fixed with a wall because, for starters, where would you put it? Sheriff Martinez drives us up the road, where there is no more fence. Instead, there are these houses along the river bank. He pulls up on a vacant lot between two homes. He knows the owner, he tells us. It's no problem. There are perks to being sheriff.

MARTINEZ: That, on the other side there, is Mexico.

MARTIN: Just across this little...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is this even a river? This looks like a creek - a big creek.

MARTINEZ: That's the Rio Grande River right there.

MARTIN: How many feet are we talking about?

MARTINEZ: We're probably talking - what? - 300 feet, 400 feet.

MARTIN: I mean, that's not hard to swim across.

MARTINEZ: No.

MARTIN: So at night, someone can just swim across and just walk up here, just like we did, and walk to that road.

MARTINEZ: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I asked Sheriff Martinez how the immigration debate is affecting people's politics here. And like other folks we spoke to in Del Rio, he said it's not top-of-mind for residents. This is a relatively quiet part of the border. The people who do sneak in get out quickly and move to bigger cities.

And even the Republican congressman Will Hurd has spoken out against the wall. He's facing a Democratic challenger named Gina Ortiz Jones, who's trying to tie Hurd to President Trump. But this is a swing district. And Hurd has positioned himself as a moderate. And by doing so, he's won the support of people like Sheriff Martinez.

MARTINEZ: Will has come down here. I've given him this same tour. I like Will. He's - he's helped out our office. He's been an advocate for us.

MARTIN: And this is interesting because Sheriff Martinez, like most elected officials here, is a Democrat. And even though he didn't vote for President Trump and has some issues with his policies and his rhetoric, Martinez is pleased about one thing.

MARTINEZ: This administration, the sheriffs have been invited to the table. Previous administrations, we weren't. Or if we were, while everybody else was eating T-bones, we were eating bologna. And I think that to solve the immigration issue, the sheriffs have to be at the table. You can't - you can't just cut us out.

MARTIN: Because he knows the battle over immigration is going to go on for a very long time, which brings us back to the original question. What about that wall?

MARTINEZ: See, my idea was to - you can control with technology, cameras, instead of putting a physical structure - because where are you going to put it?

MARTIN: He points to the houses along the river on the U.S. side of the border.

MARTINEZ: Are you going to put these people in Mexico? Are you going to put these people on the wrong side of the wall? Where are going to put it?

MARTIN: Meanwhile, people like Amanda Aguerre block out the noise about the wall. She will vote for the incumbents, Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Republican Congressman Will Hurd. And she will keep going back and forth across the border in her backyard, as she did with us.

AGUERRE: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

AGUERRE: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: And just like that, we're in Mexico.

AGUERRE: Yeah. See, the exchange place is right here, where - the dollar exchange.

MARTIN: So this is...

AGUERRE: Acuna.

MARTIN: Acuna.

We walk down the main street, filled with bars.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: And stores selling all kinds of Mexican handicrafts. We stop at one storefront where a woman is sewing handmade dolls dressed in colorful dresses.

AGUERRE: See, she's actually making them. It's not machine - they're not coming from China. These are authentic. (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Amanda chats up some other merchants. Then with a smile, she nudges her long, black hair over her shoulder and waves goodbye.

AGUERRE: Gracias, senora.

MARTIN: Amanda gets in her white SUV and waits in the long line to cross back over into the U.S. She'll return in a few days, though. She has dresses that need tailoring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.