Conflict & Justice

Trapped in Texas: Tens of thousands of immigrants are stuck in the borderlands

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation

Tania crop.jpg

Tania Chavez, 29, from Mexico, has spent nearly half her life living in southeastern Texas, unable to travel beyond secondary US checkpoints. She cannot go to her native Mexico either, because she may not be able to get back.

Credit:

Jason Margolis

Tania Chavez is one of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, but her story is different than most others living in the US without papers. She lives along the Rio Grande River in the southeastern corner of Texas. Some Texans call this area North Mexico. It’s one of the poorest parts of the US.

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“We’re not Mexico, and we’re not the United States. We’re somewhere in between,” says Chavez.   

Chavez says the food and celebrations are very Mexican, but business and government, that’s very American. And so is immigration law. 

When Chavez was in eighth grade, her parents sent her and her 18-year-old brother from Mexico to live in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas on tourist visas. Chavez overstayed her visa and went on to attend high school, college and earn a master's degree in the US, along the border.

Chavez is now 29 and lives in Edninburg, a small city about 20 miles from the Rio Grande River. Because she’s undocumented, she’s afraid of traveling far from home — if she ventures too far, she’ll hit so-called interior checkpoints. They’re the second lines of immigration defense along the US southern border.

“To the east we have Brownsville and South Padre Island, that’s about an hour-and-a-half away, about 75 miles. To the west, we have Laredo, Texas, and outside Laredo there is a checkpoint. And to the north we have the checkpoint with Falfurrias and then the checkpoint with Sarita as you’re going to Corpus Christi,” says Chavez, explaining the locations of the interior checkpoints.

If she’s stopped at one, she could be deported. Her box to roam — pretty much freely — is about 7,000 square miles, an area of border towns and Texas desert scrub slightly smaller than the size of New Jersey.

“That’s it, that’s all, that’s my cage, those are my surroundings,” she says.

Chavez says she knows a lot of other undocumented immigrants like her stuck like this in the borderlands — unofficial estimates for the Rio Grande Valley are in the tens of thousands. Make no mistake, Chavez can go back to Mexico, but if she does, there’s no guarantee she’ll get back into Texas, after all, she's violating US immigration rules living in the US out of status. She could also be deported at any time. 

It’s an odd existence for Chavez, made odder by the near ubiquitous presence of US Border Patrol agents. 

“We eat with them at restaurants all the time,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t think about it, you don’t even realize that you’re sitting right next to Border Patrol and you’ve been there for over an hour until you notice them. I mean, you just have to go on with your life.”

Chavez has a steady job consulting for a non-profit. She’s also a community activist. She has plenty of friends and says she’s generally happy. But she misses her parents, who live in Mexico. They can come visit her for a day, using a border-crossing card, but there are hassles and travel costs.

“I speak with them over the phone every day, I text with them every day. But obviously it’s difficult, like the holidays, Christmas, Mother’s day, Father’s day, you go to church and you can’t really enjoy when everyone’s celebrating with their parents. ... And on my birthday, everyone goes to the front of the church to be blessed, and I just don’t want to walk up to the front, because, like, this loner is coming to celebrate her birthday at the church by herself.”

Chavez’ story could have a happy ending: she could apply for DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It’s a program President Barack Obama created to protect young immigrants like Chavez, who were brought to the US illegally as kids.

But Chavez was disqualified from the program on a technicality. That’s why she’s taking her story to the media, to show how US immigration policies impact people in the border area. She says until policies change — to protect more immigrants like her —she’ll keep speaking.

The geographic area where Tania Chavez can roam, pretty much freely, before she hits a secondary US checkpoint or the border with Mexico. It's roughly 7,000 square miles, slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. (Map by Mikaela Lefrak)