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"First the Fence, Then the System" published in VQR

My most recent article about the influx of unaccompanied immigrant minors--children who cross the border alone--in Texas' Rio Grande Valley is out in the Virginia Quarterly Review. The article was featured at Byliner and as a Longreads Top 5 of the week

Tiptoeing through the scrub brush of South Texas, everything sounds like a threat: wind rustling the palm fronds, a lizard skittering through the understory, a hawk’s heavy flapping, one’s own arm against a pantleg.

At the bottom edge of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge slinks that fabled river, the Rio Grande, not two car lengths across. It is both astounding and totally unsurprising that Mexico, on the opposite bank, looks just the same as Texas, just a mirror image of nothing special. The park is a restored desert wetland, home to birds and armadillos and the endangered ocelot, with the occasional crossing of both Border Patrol trucks and those they are hunting. Thanks to uproar from the park staff and local environmentalist groups that had worked to restore and preserve this nearly lost habitat, the infamous border wall—​a twelve-​foot-​high metal fence—​stops at the Santa Ana’s perimeter and starts up again on the other side. Next to the river, a sign reads: this corridor will allow animals to safely pass along and across the Rio Grande. Just east of the sign, you can see a narrow scramble path leading from the murky river up into Texas.

The gift shop at the Santa Ana Refuge sells T-​shirts and postcards of Texas wildlife. In the corner stand a few tanks showcasing what you might see out there—​snakes, mud eels, tortoises. I asked the cashier,who was at the window spying for jays, whether immigrants ever crossed through here. She raised her eyebrows, registering that I was clearly from out of town.

“Every day!” she said. “You can find stashes of water and clothes and all sorts of stuff back there,” she said, motioning to the park. “But you know, they aren’t after us. They aren’t trying to hurt us. They just want a better life. It’s mostly families and kids,” she said.


“Oh, yeah. Just last week they caught twenty of them. There was one full family, but the rest of them were all kids.”

The history of the Rio Grande Valley is one of migration, of shifting borders, of walls and fences, hidings and crossings—​this used to be Mexico, after all, and before that indigenous land. Today the two most reliable imports here are people and drugs. In 2012, Border Patrol in the Valley apprehended more than 97,000 undocumented immigrants, up from 59,000 the previous year. Human smuggling and drug smuggling have become a cooperative business. The infamous Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso on the western side of the state, has one of the highest murder rates in Mexico, often related to narco-​trafficking. Increasingly, the violence has spread east to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande Valley—​Reynosa, Matamoros, cities to be avoided if you can help it. And yet here and at nearly every other stopover point en route to the US, hundreds of children from all over Central America find themselves in a life-​threatening state of limbo far away from home, hunkering in safe houses or along the riverbank for a chance to slip across the border. Read More


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    Lauren Markham - Updates - "First the Fence, Then the System" published in VQR
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    Lauren Markham - Updates - "First the Fence, Then the System" published in VQR
  • Response
    Lauren Markham - Updates - "First the Fence, Then the System" published in VQR

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