What’s next for Texas border communities that voted against Trump in record numbers
This fall, Victor, a 45-year-old Mexican immigrant, canvassed for a presidential election for the first time, knocking on hundreds of his neighbors’ doors in Brownsville, Texas, just north of the border with Mexico. In his 22 years living in the U.S. he’d never paid politics much attention, but now he felt Donald Trump’s threats of mass deportations and a 1,900-mile concrete border wall could turn his life upside down. So Victor pushed others to vote — because, being undocumented, he could not.
“I went to every house I passed — it didn’t matter if people were undocumented or couldn’t vote. I just said, ‘Ask anyone you know who can vote to vote,’” he told me last week in his Brownsville apartment, near the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and just a few blocks from a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint. He wore a starched lavender shirt and dress pants and gazed out his floor-length window at the palm trees, which barely concealed an iron border fence. (He asked that I not use his last name because of his legal status.) He told me he was driven to campaign to protect the right of his daughter, a 4-year-old U.S. citizen, to remain with her parents. “I’m not afraid to be deported — I know I can survive anywhere — but it makes me sad and concerned for my family,” he said.
Brownsville, the poorest city in the country, has long felt forgotten by Washington politics. But where similarly neglected Rust Belt communities turned to Trump this year, residents along the border mobilized to fight the candidate who seemed to scapegoat their region without understanding it. Brownsville’s Cameron County saw record turnout — 5 points higher than the state as a whole — thanks to get-out-the-vote efforts by residents like Victor, and nearly every Texas border community came out to vote in unprecedented numbers. These Democratic strongholds helped push the state to be more purple than in decades past, and the border electorate will likely keep growing, with the potential to shake up future elections. Now that Trump has won, residents are bracing for an attack on their bicultural community while still figuring out how to use their developing political power.
In addition to being the poorest, Brownsville is also one of the United States’ most predominantly Latino cities: 93 percent of its residents identified as Hispanic or Latino in the 2010 census, the fourth-highest share in the country. In Cameron County, nearly a quarter of residents are foreign-born (mainly from Mexico), and about 10 percent of residents are undocumented. And virtually everyone who lives in Brownsville has family in Latin America.
“Washington thinks this territory is another world. They don’t understand that people here all have relatives on the other side of the border, and that we’re unified on either side of the border,” Victor said. “This is the danger of the wall. The base of society is family and when you divide either side of the border you make that dissolve.”
Texas, a consistently Republican state since 1980, saw a much tighter race this year: About 52 percent of voters went for Trump and 43 percent for Hillary Clinton compared with 57 percent for Mitt Romney and 41 percent for President Obama in 2012. While the state saw a lower overall turnout — 42 percent, down from 46 percent in 2012 — in Cameron County it was up to 47 percent from 42 percent. Two-thirds of Brownsville voters chose Clinton and neighboring counties saw similar results.
“This is the highest turnout has ever been,” Fred Garza, who works for the Cameron County Election Commission, told me, adding that he was hopeful “this spike will keep growing.”
Cameron County’s election results seemed to follow overall Latino voting patterns this year, with turnout up and a majority of support going to Clinton. Exit polls showed Clinton won about 65 percent of the national Latino vote and Trump took 29 percent. But the Latino pollsters group Latino Decisions put the share of support for Clinton even higher — the exit polls, they said, didn’t take a good enough sample of Hispanic voters. Their research found that 79 percent of Latinos chose Clinton.
Lupita Sanchez, a Brownsville native who works as an organizer with the non-partisan community center Proyecto Juan Diego, told me encouraging voters in the area has been a challenge for decades. She and other local get-out-the-vote activists cited the prevalence of mixed undocumented families, frustration with local government and poor education to explain the lack of voting culture. Often because their parents aren’t citizens, children don’t see them vote. Communities see stalled projects in their neighborhoods, causing them to lose faith in the government. And many residents stop school early, limiting their exposure to the democratic process. But Sanchez told me she was able to mobilize more voters this year because many people feared what Trump’s promises would bring.
“One 45-year-old woman walked in my office and said she wanted to register to vote — and she was a born U.S. citizen, but this was her first time to ever want to vote,” Sanchez recalled as she drove me around Cameron Park, one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods and where she lives and works. “I asked her why, and she said, ‘I don’t want that man to be president.’ I guess I have to appreciate Trump in this way — it’s good for people to start voting and to be informed.”
Trump’s promises inflamed local frustrations with recent actions the federal government — especially the Obama administration — has taken on the border. Obama deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president, 2.5 million people from 2009 through the end of 2016, government data shows. Prior to that, the Bush administration built an iron border fence that crosses Cameron County about a mile north of the actual border with Mexico. It was this fence Trump vowed during the campaign to strengthen and extend, through construction of a concrete wall he said would span the entire border.
Maria Cordero, a community organizer for the ACLU in the Rio Grande Valley, lives on the south side of the wall in a house she bought decades ago, before the wall was built. She told me her neighborhood now deals with constant surveillance from helicopters, drones, and Border Patrol agents.
“I have family who won’t visit me anymore because I’m on the other side of the wall and they’re afraid of being stopped by Border Patrol,” said Cordero, who led a team of 12 canvassers to get out the vote in her precinct. She felt that neighbors were receptive to their efforts “because of the rhetoric the candidates used” about the border. “The wall has been a waste of money, a bad investment,” she said. “Washington needs to understand that we’re mostly mixed families, documented and not.”
The local Brownsville government has long honored the community’s profile, even resisting national efforts to step up deportations and opposing the fence. Currently, the Brownsville police department refrains from handing undocumented individuals over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Mayor Tony Martinez, a Democrat who grew up on the border and has held the office since 2011, told me he is “preparing for the worst” in the Trump presidency but is ready to fight back.
“This rhetoric that was spewed was not particularly the kind of rhetoric that makes you comfortable as a Hispanic, but we’re not going to take it sitting down if in fact some of these words are turned into action,” Martinez said.
“We won’t take anything that indicates people are not equal citizens, regardless of their legal status,” he added. “We don’t build walls here, we build bridges. It’s so antagonistic of what we stand for. We’re known as the gateway to the Americas.”
But other Brownsville residents who mobilized around the election are left totally defeated — and confused about what to do next. Cordero has begun training local community leaders to teach their members about their constitutional rights and is discouraging people from protesting at the moment, since she worries it might put them at risk with authorities. Although the police do not typically work with ICE, Cordero said the current climate is unpredictable.
“We’re telling people — you want to show your courage? Use it to study, to learn — we only have two months before this administration enters, so we have to prepare,” she said. She gave a workshop in Brownsville the day I visited and instructed her audience not to sign sheets ICE officials handed them or to share more information than requested with police officers. “This is a community that is learning but that is afraid. And after this election, all our hope feels gone,” she said.
Not all of Brownsville, or Cameron County, was devastated by Trump’s win. A full 31 percent of voters cast their ballots for him, after all.
Mohammad Choudhury, who owns the Magnuson Hotel in Brownsville, told me he voted for Trump hoping the Republican would improve the economy and national security.
“Trump didn’t offend me — we need to secure this area, and I understand why he would close the country to Muslims for a period of time since there are Muslim terrorists” said Choudhury, who himself is Muslim and was born in Brownsville to Indian immigrant parents. “And I think we need to analyze what Trump says — he’s a businessman, not a politician. I’m a businessman, too, and I don’t always say things the right way.”
Choudhury said he disagreed with expanding the border wall because “it won’t stop anyone or anything” from crossing, but said he believed Trump’s policies might help his home, “one of the poorest areas in the country.”
“I always vote Republican — you don’t have to be white to vote Republican,” he said. “I didn’t really like Trump, but I’m a Republican so I’ll support my party.”
Like most of the country, Brownsville residents have met with impassioned divisions among friends and family members.
“I’ve been fighting with my brother-in-law on Facebook — he lives in Brownsville, too, and his parents were immigrants, but he’s against immigration and he voted for Trump,” Cordero’s husband, Rolando Almaraz, told me when he arrived home from his job in construction. Almaraz teared up, visibly pained. “I was born in Brownsville … there have been divides since I was in school. But since Trump won, there’s been a lot more bullying.”
Amid the divisiveness, a small but strong segment of Brownsville residents are driven to speak out louder than ever, no matter the risk. Nilda Alemana, an undocumented single mother of four who immigrated to South Texas at age 17, marched through the streets the weekend after Trump’s victory with a small group of demonstrators, passing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint leading to Matamoros, Mexico.
Alemana said her 5-year-old daughter Daisy started crying the morning after the election, pleading to stay home from school because she thought Alemana would be deported that day. “She said ‘Mommy, you won’t be here when I get back!’ And since then she always says to me, ‘look Mommy, there’s a police!’ I tell her not to worry, I’m not doing anything wrong. … But when I dropped her off at school, I waited until she went inside, and I cried.”
As for many undocumented residents, especially on the border, Alemana’s fear is nothing new — she told me she has long faced threats of deportation and separation from her daughter. But she refuses to cower.
“My fear instead of powering me down powers me up,” she said. “I’m trying to get informed, to know the way I can stay here. My daughter asks me, ‘Is there anything we can do about this Mommy?’ And I tell her that I’m working on it.”
Meredith Hoffman is a freelance journalist based in Austin who has reported from South and Central America, Europe, New York, and throughout Texas. She regularly writes on immigration for VICE.