John Burnett | WYPR

John Burnett

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is pledging to dismantle the sweeping changes President Trump has made to the American immigration system, if he wins the White House in November.

But that's easier said than done.

"I don't think it's realistic that Biden in four years could unroll everything that Trump did," says Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

A priest, a newspaper editor and a mariachi musician — they've all had their work and lives upended in a corner of the country that has been devastated by the coronavirus.

More than 2,000 people in the Rio Grande Valley in the southern tip of Texas have perished in the pandemic.

Trump's massive border wall gets all the buzz.

But U.S. Customs and Border Protection is quietly testing a new generation of free-standing surveillance towers on the Arizona border that could revolutionize border security. The telescoping towers are equipped with infrared and daytime cameras, along with laser range-finders and illuminators that can zoom in on a target miles away for a close-up. They're mounted in the bed of a Ford F-150 pickup, so they're completely mobile and can be operated remotely.

The figure of a young Confederate soldier holding a rifle has gazed out from his pedestal in front of the Harrison County Courthouse in the piney woods of northeast Texas for 114 years.

The 8-foot statue was a gift — like hundreds of others across the South — from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They are memorials to the war dead and, historians say, monuments to white supremacy and Jim Crow laws.

When Border Patrol agents were dispatched earlier this month to Portland, Oregon, it wasn't the first time they've taken on urban policing far from their duties on the nation's frontiers.

The agents deployed to Los Angeles, for instance, after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Alongside local police and National Guard, the green-suited border agents were there to quell riots but drew a lot of criticism for also conducting immigration sweeps of people in the country illegally.

The movement for racial justice is toppling statues across America, from Robert E. Lee to Christopher Columbus — and now the Spanish conquistador, Juan de Oñate, the first European to colonize the arid wilderness of New Mexico, the state's first colonial governor and a despot who inflicted misery on Native Americans.

Tensions boiled over recently at a demonstration to remove his statue, where a man seen defending the statue allegedly shot a protester. The confrontation has revealed fault lines over how native and Hispanic history are told.

It's become known as the Old Town melee. Protesters gathered last month in Albuquerque, N.M., around the bronze statue of Juan de Oñate, the controversial Spanish conquistador, in the city's historic quarter.

Videos of the event show men with guns — in military garb and tactical gear — stationed around the statue, tussling with protesters. Soon, the protesters bring out a chain and pickax to topple the figure, as police watch from afar.

Some of the worst coronavirus outbreaks have occurred at long-term care facilities that now account for more than one-third of all COVID-19 deaths in America. Some states have taken aggressive actions to slow the spread of the virus among residents and workers in nursing homes. Texas formed a strike force to assess problems at its 1,222 nursing homes.

The Trump administration has released a draft of new regulations that would sharply restrict how asylum is granted to immigrants who come to the U.S. seeking protection. Critics say the proposed changes are so severe that they would effectively shut down the asylum system in this country.

The federal government is planning to put 69 miles of its massive border wall along the river in Texas' Webb and Zapata counties. When it became clear that the imposing barrier would plow through the center of the proud city of Laredo, a remarkably diverse coalition of wall-haters assembled to fight it.

Folks in black "No Border Wall" T-shirts marched in the streets earlier this year. They share their movement with sedate bankers in starched, white shirts and gray suits who are just as passionate.

Restaurant doors are cautiously opening again in Texas, but nothing is quite the same with the continuing threat of the pandemic. Eateries have had to get creative to survive, and learn how to protect their customers and staff.

Jerry Morales is the amiable, animated owner of Gerardo's Casita, in Midland, Texas. With menus in hand, he greets customers who are just venturing out after seven long weeks of quarantine.

"Y'all been doing alright, staying safe?" he asks.

In the endless boom and bust cycle of the oil business, there has never been anything like 2020. The oil patch is reeling from historically low prices. Futures for West Texas Intermediate crude closed at $25 a barrel on Friday, down from more than $60 a barrel at the beginning of the year.

On a normal day in Andrews County, you can look in any direction and see the bobbing horse heads of pump jacks stretching to the horizon, sucking up oil from deep in the Earth. But these are anything but normal days.

With public life paralyzed by the coronavirus shutdown, a sad announcement came last week from a beloved cafe and music venue in Austin, Texas. Threadgill's, the Depression-era beer joint where Janis Joplin got her start — and later a place that fed Austin's appetite for good food and good music — is closing for good.

Ten thousand cars waited hours in line for emergency food aid in San Antonio last week. A drone photograph of the packed parking lot went viral. Two thousand more showed up for another distribution today.

These were some of the more than 20 million unemployed Americans, many of them recently laid off because of the pandemic.

The streets of downtown Laredo, Texas, are deserted. For decades, this dense retail district has catered to Mexican shoppers coming across the bridge from Nuevo Laredo. But these days, stores like Cindy's Electronics, Classic Perfumes, and Casa Raul Mens' Clothes are shuttered.

"Now our business has dropped 80 to 90%," says Natividad Dominguez, leaning on a glass case full of empanadas, turnovers and donuts at Pano's Bakery. "People would come across the bridge and pick up a donut. But no more. It's affecting us a lot."

After a 10-month odyssey from a Honduran slum to a North Texas suburb, 17-year-old Marvin Joel Zelaya takes a sip from his first vanilla Frappuccino and marvels at his new surroundings.

"There's order, there's security," he says. "There's not so much poverty and delinquency."

Zelaya is living with a relative in the antiseptic suburbs that extend from Dallas to Fort Worth. He is going to high school and waiting for his first asylum hearing in June.

A visit to the now-defunct Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course in Brownsville, Texas, is a cautionary tale of how Trump's border wall can create dead zones. The clubhouse is shuttered, par signs are fading and the once-manicured greens are fields of weeds.

In 2008, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, working with the University of Texas at Brownsville, built a security fence on the southern edge of the campus that effectively walled off the popular golf course from the rest of the city.

The pricetag for President Trump's border wall has topped $11 billion — or nearly $20 million a mile — to become the most expensive wall of its kind anywhere in the world.

In a status report last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is overseeing wall construction, reported that $11 billion has been identified since Trump took office to construct 576 miles of a new "border wall system."

Over the past 41 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been buying up land on the lower Texas-Mexico border to protect one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America from developers and farmers.

But the Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a hotspot for illegal immigration and drug smuggling, as well as biodiversity. That's why the Trump administration is planning to build 110 miles of border wall through the valley (which is actually a river delta).

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf visited a construction site in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas on a windswept day last month and repeated a Trump administration pledge.

"We are on track to build 450 to 500 miles of new wall by the end of 2020," he told reporters. Behind him, steel panels atop a concrete levee wall, 30 feet in all, are rising from the sugar cane fields and bird sanctuaries of the valley — which is really a river delta. They are the first section of new border wall built under President Trump where there was no barrier before.

Alexis Martinez, a Honduran man who traveled with his two young sons to seek asylum in the United States, last saw them holding hands, their faces streaked with tears, bravely walking across the Gateway International Bridge into Texas — alone.

After weeks in a makeshift refugee camp in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, Martinez knew he had to send 5-year-old Benjamin and 7-year-old Osiel without him. Benjamin had contracted bronchial pneumonia, and Martinez couldn't afford any more antibiotics.

Scott Wheeler was born and raised in what's known as the Northeast Kingdom, the rugged and beautiful countryside where Vermont abuts Canada. Even so, he didn't realize he was supposed to check in with Canadian immigration authorities when driving across the border recently.

Two polite, officious Mounties tell him to make a U-turn and follow them back to the port of entry where he's questioned about his intentions inside Quebec. He explains his mistake, and eventually, the Mounties return his identification and he's free to go.

It is the 8 a.m. assembly at Cactus Elementary School, located on the bleak plains of the Texas Panhandle. Kids with colorful backpacks and sleepy eyes sit cross-legged on the gym floor while their principal kick-starts the day: "Good morning, Cactus Elementary!" The students crow in response.

Many of them come from poor villages in faraway lands — Central America, Somalia, Myanmar, Congo, Haiti — and they're clearly thrilled to be in school.

Construction has begun on President Trump's border wall between Arizona and Mexico, and conservationists are furious. The massive barrier will skirt one of the most beloved protected areas in the Southwest — Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, recognized by the United Nations as an international biosphere reserve.

On a recent drive along the borderline, a crew was transplanting tall saguaro cactus out of the construction zone.

Federal agents were patrolling the Rio Grande in an airboat between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in September 2012. They say a group of men in a park on the Mexican side of the river began throwing rocks at them.

"I just remember the boat. They started to shoot and they hit him in the heart, and he fell to the ground," says Priscila Arévalo, the daughter of one of the Mexican men. "We ran away. When we came back, my papa he was already dead."

One day last week in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a fearsome gun battle broke out on the main boulevard to the airport, as drivers careened off the thoroughfare in terror while rival narcos blasted away at each other.

The Cartel of the Northeast operates with impunity here, cruising around town in armored, olive-drab pickups with Tropas del Infierno, Spanish for "Soldiers from Hell," emblazoned on the doors.

The lunch rush is over at a popular, cozy restaurant in a city somewhere in Missouri. The owner, Lynn, is sipping a glass of pinot grigio as her cooking crew cleans up.

Like thousands of other restaurants across America, Lynn's kitchen is staffed mainly with unauthorized Latino workers. She agreed to openly discuss this employment conundrum if NPR agreed not to give her last name, identify her restaurant, name the city, or even specify the type of cuisine. Like a lot of employers these days, she doesn't want to attract the attention of federal immigration agents.

As the Trump Administration prepares to accelerate construction of a border wall, Nayda Alvarez is preparing for the possibility that it will cut directly through her backyard.

Alvarez, a high-school teacher, received a letter last year from Customs and Border Protection about plans to build the wall on her family land in Starr County, Texas, that backs up to a bend in the Rio Grande.

"All this area was my grandfather's," she says. "So we've been here for about five or six generations. ... This is where we come fishing. We have our cookouts. We spend Easter here."

The Department of Health and Human Services is dramatically expanding its network of child shelters across the country in order to avoid the kind of scandal that occurred in Clint, Texas, where scores of immigrant children were warehoused together.

"There are too many kids in Border Patrol stations right now, and we're working to get them out of those stations and into HHS care," says Mark Weber, HHS deputy assistant secretary for public affairs.

Updated at 5:07 p.m. ET

The acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to step down in the coming weeks, according to two agency officials, amid a public furor over the treatment of migrant children in U.S. facilities.

John Sanders is expected to make his resignation effective July 5, according to the officials, who spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity because an official announcement had not been made to agency employees.

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