Latinos on the Border, Once Reliable Democrats, Waver Over Migrant Surges

Latinos on the Border, Once Reliable Democrats, Waver Over Migrant Surges

At the height of the surge in immigration last year, Cindy Garza found it hard to recognize the small Texas town of Garciasville, where she lives not far from the Rio Grande. Large crowds of people were often poking their fingers through the fence near the border crossing and screaming for help. Mothers and children kept trying to swim across the treacherous river. Once she came home and found a man who was fleeing the Border Patrol hiding under her bed.

Ms. Garza, a mother of four, has always seen herself as a Democrat, and voted for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But she has come to believe that President Biden’s softer policies on immigration have attracted the migrants from all over the world who have been seen spilling into the streets of her community. She is convinced that only a return of Donald J. Trump to the White House can restore order.

“When Biden won the last election, he said he was going to help people, and I saw a lot of people coming,” said Ms. Garza, who regularly crosses the local international bridges to visit and shop in Mexico. “I would see packs and packs of people. People saw it as a green ticket.”

Latinos all over the Rio Grande Valley, like many elsewhere in Texas, were once likely to be reliable Democrats, as Ms. Garza was. Now, widespread consternation over unauthorized crossings among residents along the border, where the majority of the population in most communities is Latino, could threaten support for Mr. Biden in what otherwise might be one of his key constituencies.

The Hidalgo County Democratic Party surveyed about 400 voters in southern Texas last year and found that even those who tend to vote for Democrats now support stronger border enforcement. Immigration reform and border security were ranked among the top 10 most pressing issues by respondents.

The results did not surprise Richard Gonzales, the county party chairman.

“You can ask anybody if there’s a problem,” Mr. Gonzales said. “Yes, there is. It needs to be addressed.”

This week, President Biden ordered a near-total ban on new applications for asylum on the southern border, at least for now. The new rule, which is likely to be challenged in court, prevents migrants from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border when the number of unauthorized crossings exceed a certain threshold. It is a clear attempt to deal with mounting criticism of the situation on the border in the months before the presidential election.

The executive order does not address the issue of migrants who cross the border illegally without seeking asylum at legal ports of entry,

Mr. Gonzales said he thought the new policy would address concerns of moderate voters who support both a wide range of liberal priorities and stronger border security. But in interviews this week, it was clear that not all voters had found their concerns allayed.

Tony Lopez, 52, a school employee who lives close to a fence meant to obstruct people crossing into the United States from Mexico, said he was skeptical. Mr. Lopez, a Democratic voter in past elections, said he viewed Mr. Biden’s executive order as “obvious” and “political.”

“He’s not doing anything,” Mr. Lopez said. “I don’t believe him.”

He said he placed more reliance on the border crackdown undertaken by the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott. Since 2021, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, has been testing the legal limits of what states can do to enforce immigration law.

His multi-billion-dollar initiative, known as Operation Lone Star, includes physical barriers along the border, a state law that would empower Texas police officers to arrest migrants, the deployment of state police and the National Guard on the border and the use of helicopters and other military-style equipment to help patrol it. The state has also bused thousands of migrants who arrive in Texas to cities like New York, Denver and Chicago.

Many of these efforts are being challenged in court. But even so, Mr. Lopez said he believed they were already having their intended effect, by making the Texas border uninviting to migrants and asylum seekers.

Mr. Abbott’s office has said that crossings into Texas have declined by 72 percent over the past two years.

In December, about 10,000 people a day were crossing into the United States without authorization along the entire southern border. The pace has since slowed to about 3,000 a day, with many of them entering states to the west.

For the first time in 25 years, the San Diego region has become a top destination for migrants, surpassing areas of Arizona and Texas for several weeks this year, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The Biden administration has also adopted a range of other policies, including working with the Mexican government to deter people from reaching the border. Analysts say these other steps have contributed to the reduction in the number of crossings.

On a sweltering afternoon this week, Mr. Lopez pointed to a large white bus used by the Border Patrol to transport migrants. Though the effects of Mr. Biden’s executive order had not yet become apparent on the U.S. side of the border, the bus was nonetheless standing idle a few feet away from his house.

“If you notice,” he said, “it’s empty. That’s because of what Abbott is doing. They are not coming here anymore. They are going to Arizona and California.”

A poll conducted earlier this year by the University of Texas at Austin found that a majority of Texas residents supported Mr. Abbott’s border policies. Nearly two-thirds of Texas voters, including many Democrats, said they supported the deployment of the state police and National Guard troops at the border.

The border has been a key issue in a South Texas congressional race, where Monica De La Cruz, a conservative who favors Mr. Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, broke a 118-year-old streak of Democratic victories in the 15th Congressional District to capture the seat during the 2022 midterm elections. Her victory in the district, which stretches from Hidalgo County to San Antonio, gave new hope to Republicans, who once were considered outsiders in local politics.

In November, Ms. De La Cruz will once again face her 2022 opponent, Michelle Vallejo, a Democrat, who lost by nine points last time. Ms. De la Cruz is focusing her campaign on border security, among other issues. Ms. Vallejo has called for securing the border but has also emphasized the need for better infrastructure to speed up handling of asylum-seekers and “treating migrants with dignity.”

Adrienne Peña-Garza, a Republican Party leader in Hidalgo County, said the number of voters who support stricter immigration laws is likely to keep growing in future election cycles. Mr. Trump, who made building a wall along the border a focus of his campaigns, garnered 28 percent of the vote in Hidalgo County in 2016 and 41 percent in 2020.

“Hispanics on the border, we want law and order, we want border security,” Ms. Peña-Garza said. “We want safety in our communities. We do love immigrants. But we just want things done legally and safely.”

Mr. Gonzales, the local Democratic leader, said it was wrong to cast immigration as either a conservative or a liberal issue.

“Me personally, I love seeing President Biden being aggressive,” he said. “I like seeing him take situations, facing them head on and try to fix them, especially a situation as nuanced and complicated as immigration.”

He added: “This is not a Democrat problem. It’s not a Republican problem. It’s an American problem.”

He said he thought Democrats could continue to prevail if their candidates talk not just about immigration, but also about greater access to health care, job creation and gun control.

But voters like Monica Castro, a 53-year-old retired property manager who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, have evolving priorities. Ms. Castro said she voted Democratic as a young woman, but now places border migration and security near the top of her lists of concerns — and Democrats, she said, are not rising to the new challenges.

“The border was always part of life here,” she said. “But it has become difficult to ignore it anymore. We need to pay more attention to who is coming here and why, and do more to secure the border.”

“My days of voting for Democrats are over,” she said.

Ms. Garza, the woman from Garciasville, said she often felt conflicted about having a front-row seat to human suffering. She frequently leaves drinking water out for anyone who reaches her property during extreme heat.

“I support more border control, but I am also human,” she said. “I feel bad for what they are going through. I have a heart.”

She recalled the incident in which a man fleeing from Border Patrol agents managed to enter her house unnoticed one afternoon, and discarded a red shirt he was wearing before hiding under her bed. Her husband spotted the shirt and became suspicious, causing the man to flee.

By the time the agents came to her house and asked whether she had seen anyone in a red shirt, the migrant was long gone, she said. “It is moments like that when you feel bad for the person, but also realize that something has to be done.”

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