Ivan Perez, a Robinson Township resident who works locally as a conservation officer, grew up in McAllen. As a kid, he and his family routinely traveled across the border to Reynosa, Mexico, where they could save money on everything from groceries to prescriptions.
Perez’s mother still lives in McAllen, but times have changed. She no longer crosses the border into her native Mexico — it’s just not safe.
At a time when the border between the United States and Mexico is squarely in the middle of a raging national debate about President Trump’s proposed border wall, Perez took some time to share what he’s seen first-hand as a native of a border town.
We also talked to his wife, Veronica Perez, who grew up in Arizona and worked for the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego. They share their thoughts on a border crisis that seems so distant to those of us living in West Michigan, but it hits very close to home for this local family.
Things Have Changed
“I worry a lot about my mom,” Ivan Perez said. “She’s 85 years old and lives in my childhood home. She lives by herself there. Her house has been broken into. She’s had her wallet stolen out of her purse at the store.
“When I was younger, my mom, my dad, we’d go into Reynosa, the border town. It was very popular for various things. People would go get cheaper dental work, cheaper prescriptions. It was almost a weekly thing, every Saturday or Sunday we’d go down there. It was like visiting Holland or Spring Lake. You just went over there did your stuff and came back.
“My mom will not travel there any more because of how unsafe it is. The cartels have really taken over a lot of those border towns. It makes my mom very nervous to go over because of all the kidnapping.”
Perez left McAllen in 1985 to join the U.S. Navy. He also served in the U.S. Coast Guard, which his how he ended up in Michigan.
Perez said it’s not difficult to get across the border. Near McAllen, and up and down the Rio Grand Valley, the border follows the twists and turns of the Rio Grande River. The Rio Grande in many places resembles the Grand River, where a small rowboat could easily cross in minutes.
In other places, you can wade across the river without getting your shorts wet.
Veronica Perez was stationed at the far west end of the U.S.-Mexico border, just south of San Diego. There, a chain-link fence was all that separates the two nations.
“I remember once, I wasn’t supposed to cross the border, but I talked a border patrol agent to take me to a place where there was a hole in the fence,” Veronica Perez said. “He let me step my foot across, the pulled me back and said, ‘That’s it, we’re out of here.” It wasn’t safe, but I wanted to know what it was like and see how easy it was. There was nobody around. I can only imagine all the people that come through there. There’s no barrier, and this was in San Diego.”
The grass isn’t always greener
Veronica’s worked as a guard matron who cared for the women and children who were detained at the border.
“I would ask them why they want to come here, and they all said, for a better life,” she said. “I would ask them, ‘Better in what way?’
“I tried to let them know that it’s not that easy to be here, but that’s what they’re told in the other countries. They’re going to keep on trying. Their kids are starving; what are they going to do?
“People come here hoping for a better life, but they pay thousands of dollars to try to get here, and often, they get caught. Now, they have nothing, and their family members are being held for money because of what they owe.”
She said many children came in without parents.
“We’d have kids come in with people who they’re not related to because when the border patrol shows up, everyone runs,” Veronica said. “Mothers would take off without their children, and their babies would end up in a total strangers’ hands.
“It was heart-wrenching and sad. I had a lot of compassion for them. I loved my job, because I got to meet a lot of people, and I tried to educate them.”
Thoughts on the wall
Veronicahates the fact that politics has muddied the fact that something needs to be done to help those whose job it is to patrol and protect the border.
“I wish people would understand that to build this wall isn’t supporting Trump,” she said. “You’re supporting our border patrol. They’re the ones getting shot at, having rocks thrown at them.
“You’re helping them. Why wouldn’t you give a fireman a fire truck? It’s ridiculous. This is something that would help people be safe. That’s what a barrier does.”
“I’ve always been around border patrol, and I know the job they do, I know how difficult it is,” Ivan added. “It’s a monumental task to try to stay on top of the illegal activities that are occurring. … My high school friends still live down there and they tell me about the criminal element, which has definitely increased, especially with the amount of drugs, illegal immigration, safe houses, trafficking of people, it’s totally different. Every time I go down there it’s a little more rough around the edges.”
The Perez’s realizes it’s difficult for people living more than 1,500 miles away to have any idea what conditions are like along our nation’s southern border.
“That’s what bothers me is when people say things, and I ask, ‘Have you ever worked there?’” Veronica said. “They don’t know, being so far away.”
Her husband agrees.
“I’m from there. My mom still lives there. I have a lot of family there,” said Ivan, reiterating his fierce pride in his South Texas culture. “It irks me that people who are not from there have opinions about it, and not really know how much that place has changed.”