The blue and white chopper dipped low over the old white farmhouse and the muddy green river. Seventy-three-year-old Reynaldo Anzaldua, sporting a tan Vietnam vet baseball cap, squinted up at the chopper blotting out the blue sky. “Border Patrol, ver…” he said, the whir of the rotor blades drowning out his words. Anzaldua waited a bit, watching the chopper move upriver. “Verdad?” he said finally to his cousin, Fred Cavazos, who had rolled his wheelchair over to the edge of the cattle pen so he could feed his Longhorns. Cavazos nodded. “They’ve got three kinds of helicopters down here,” he said, knowingly. “That one’s Border Patrol, then you’ve got the National Guard, and the state police got their own.”
“But now, we also got the military,” Anzaldua added. “I heard they’re down at the port of entries jumping out of black helicopters with submachine guns. I haven’t seen it yet myself, but that’s what I’ve heard.” Both of them had lived along the Rio Grande their entire lives and the recent deployment of more than 5,800 active duty soldiers near their homes and along the southern border still felt surreal, even in border communities that had grown accustomed to more policing and surveillance than anywhere else in America. Photos, snapped by locals, circulated on Facebook of Customs and Border Protection agents clad in black riot gear shutting down lanes at the ports of entry with Mexico, of soldiers in Mission, Texas, not far from Cavazos’s farm, lining the Rio Grande with razor wire. A feeling of foreboding had settled in along the border.
It was November 6 — Election Day. We stood in the sun watching Cavazos push a bale of hay into the cattle pen. The Pentagon had announced the deployment, dubbed Operation Faithful Patriot, one week earlier. In a string of increasingly hysterical tweets leading up to the deployment, President Donald Trump had warned of an “invasion” by Central American families traveling north to seek asylum in caravans — or “scare-a-vans,” as CNN had dubbed them. Mexico, Trump tweeted, should stop “this large flow of people, INCLUDING MANY CRIMINALS, from entering Mexico to the US. …If unable to do so I will call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!”
Cranking up the rhetoric on October 31, Trump had told reporters he’d send as many as 10,000 to 15,000 troops. Never mind that the 5,800 soldiers and 2,100 National Guardsman already deployed meant that more troops were amassed there than in Iraq and Syria combined. The next day, in televised remarks from the White House, Trump said he’d authorize lethal force against migrants traveling in the caravans. “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back,” Trump said. “We’ll consider — and I told them — consider it a rifle.”
The president’s words sent a chill through border communities, where many still remember when a U.S. Marine assigned to a drug interdiction task force mistakenly shot and killed an 18-year-old boy, Esequiel Hernández, in 1997 as he was herding goats in the small Texas border town of Redford. Fatal shootings of unarmed residents by the Border Patrol is an ever-present danger. In less than a decade, agents have fatally shot at least 25 unarmed people — some of them standing across the border in Mexico. The Border Patrol often claimed the shootings were in self-defense because the victims had thrown rocks in the direction of agents.
So it wasn’t much consolation when Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, chief of U.S. Northern Command and in charge of the deployment, told reporters that the troops would be extensively briefed on the rules of engagement but would follow the lead of CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency. CBP will be “the primary and principle members that will be handling specifically the migrants,” O’Shaughnessy said. “There could be incidental interaction between our military members and migrants or other personnel. … And so we are making [sure] that our soldiers, our Marines are going to be fully trained in how to do that interaction. They’re going to understand the rules for that interaction and they’ll be consistent with CBP.”
“Having the military here is a disaster,” Anzaldua said. “Or more likely a tragedy. They are trained for war. They shouldn’t be here. But it’s not their fault.” Anzaldua, himself a former Air Force sergeant, shook his head, frowning. “They’re just doing what they’re told. In my opinion, some of those politicians who sent them down here should be held accountable if they shoot someone. They should be tried for murder.”
They didn’t feel safer, only under occupation, he said, and people were suffering on the other side of the river, too. “They’re supposed to take in asylum-seekers and vet them to see whether they’re eligible to stay or not,” Anzaldua said. “A lot of those folks are families with children, and they’re suffering from the elements, and there’s no telling whether they’re getting food or water. It’s inhumane what they are doing.”
During the Pentagon press conference on October 29 announcing Operation Faithful Patriot, O’Shaughnessy said the deployment would consist largely of Army engineering, aviation, and medical personnel who would “harden the southern border” in advance of the migrant caravan arrivals. It would also include armed divisions of military police, he said. But the general emphasized that the military police were not authorized to engage in law enforcement at the border, which would violate the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act that bans the use of military for civilian law enforcement. “Everything we are doing is in line with and in adherence to Posse Comitatus,” O’Shaughnessy said.
I asked Mark Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, and now senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whether migrant caravans filled with asylum-seekers should be considered a national threat. He chuckled. “It’s in the eye of beholder. The president says it is, others say it isn’t. The notion that we should defend our borders — that’s why we have a military, to safeguard the borders. On the other hand, this is mostly a law enforcement problem. The military is terrible with civilians. When they see threatening people, their inclination is to eliminate the threat.”
- “I was a U.S. Customs agent for 30 years. So I know how smuggling works. And a wall won’t stop it.”