fbpx
Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Texas Border Tour

“It’s a hundred times worse than what they’re seeing on the news.”

US-MEXICO-BORDER
(Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Brooks County—A few miles south of the Border Patrol check station, where the western boundary of King Ranch’s Encino Division meets the northbound side of State Highway 281, the otherwise perfect fence sags from the weight of undocumented aliens—UDAs, in the parlance of the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department—who bail out of vehicles and cross into the brush to hike around the check station for pickup a few miles up the road. From there, they travel to Houston, Dallas, or other cities to the north. 

Jorge Esparza, a commander in the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department, pointed to the little median rest stop. “At night, they cross and try to disappear into the trees and then jump into vehicles.” He recounted stories of people piling into trunks and busted drivers claiming they were just sitting there when all these people jumped in. Consistent with media reports that “crossings” had decreased since President Trump’s Title 42 health order ended five days prior, Esparza said that things along the Highway 281 corridor had been “easier.” But he was not at all sure that the local lull reflected an actual drop in the number of UDAs crossing the Rio Grande. He felt certain that when UDA traffic thinned in one place, it would soon pick up in another, if it hadn’t already. 

Advertisement

Brooks County Sheriff Urbino “Benny” Martinez spent 29 years with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the Texas state police. Much of that time he worked undercover. Softspoken, lanky, wearing loose-fitting linen street clothes appropriate to the South Texas heat, clean shaven and topped with a formidable gray mullet, he fit my image of a senior member of the Tejano music scene instead of the pragmatic lawman that he is. 

I asked him about the reported decrease in UDA crossings.

“There are no agents in the brush right now, because they are all down on the river. Yeah, the government sent troops to help, but you still need agents down there to help with processing, to help guide people to where they need to be.”

How have border conditions changed over his career?

“Back in the 1990s, we’d have big loads of marijuana driven through. But they didn’t run. They’d just put their hands up and be like, ‘Okay, I’m caught.’ Now these guys will bust gate after gate, just run right through them. Why? Who and what are they bringing across? Whatever the reason, it started as soon as the new administration came in. Now, granted, we’ve always had dead bodies here. We hit a high during the Obama years. Then this administration came in and we hit another high, something like 200 bodies in 24 months.” 

Advertisement

“People say we are inhumane for enforcing the law, for sending people back, but I ask the NGOs, the strong Democrats, is it humane for young ladies to get raped back in the brush? Is it humane for me to pick up dead bodies full of maggots? Is it humane to have 200 people in one house with no food, no water, no sewer or latrine? This is all driven by money. The cartels know how soft we are.”

“Word has it that traffic is moving upriver on the Mexican side, away from the governor’s assets, toward Eagle Pass and Del Rio, but as soon as Texas realigns DPS and the Guard to those areas, traffic will move on to New Mexico and Arizona. Disregard what Border Patrol is doing, this is just what Texas is doing.”

Why disregard Border Patrol?

“Because we had a section of fence with razor wire at Brownsville, and Border Patrol came and removed it. Why? So there could be a safe passageway for people to cross over to be processed. The governor found out and sent troops and his consultant down there, and they rebuilt it. They put two rows of razor wire in.”

Martinez has met and had the opportunity to speak with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on three occasions. He describes the secretary as “always on point.” 

“As he was going through his spiel, he mentioned that he gave millions to an NGO in the Valley. So I brought up to him that in 2012 Brooks County lost $695,000 recovering dead bodies—the autopsies, gas, transportation, manpower, mortuary charges. We ended up having to lay people off. The people who stayed had to take pay cuts. We are among the poorest counties in the state—a Democratic county, by the way—but there’s no assistance. Yet you provided millions for the comfort of foreigners coming in? He didn’t have an answer for anything. He stuck to his narrative: safe passage; those who need to be sent back will be sent back; operational control; parole, which simply means a letter of intent to show up at a hearing in eighteen, thirty-six, sixty months. Never mind that these people can get married. They can have kids. The fact that they’ve set foot on American soil changes everything.”

Martinez suspects that as news of high rates of parole gets back to people waiting in Mexico, many who might have risked illegal crossing had Title 42 remained in force are now presenting themselves to authorities and requesting asylum. Thus the influx remains as high or higher than ever, even as the Biden administration and much of the media report fewer crossings.

Eight days prior, Martinez and his deputies responded to a call from a rancher west of town who reported a pickup in one of his pastures. They arrived to find a woman with her CBP One app form filled out, if not exactly correctly, then acceptably, with a man she said was her son from Houston. (CBP One is a smartphone app launched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2020.) The truck had Mississippi plates. She claimed they had come to Brooks County to feed arriving immigrants. A Border Patrol officer declared her okay. The man was taken into custody and turned out to be an MS-13 member. Next morning, the woman, who had been put up in a local hotel, asked about her “husband.”

Martinez said, “First he was her son, then he was her husband. Yeah. Plain and simple, they were in that pasture to pick up people. They take advantage of the system. The MS-13 son/husband was deported. The woman, whose hearing is set years out, went on her way.” 

What drives the current system? Ideology, altruism, or opportunism? 

Sheriff Martinez thought for a moment. “Probably some of all three, but definitely ideology.”

In Brownsville, about two miles north of the Rio Grande, I drove past modest office parks, strip malls, and tire shops. Here and there, dour guardsmen sweated beneath canopies of camo netting near sections of border wall. Abruptly the scenery opened into fields and woodland patches. The population density of the lower Rio Grande Valley matches that of Texas’s big cities, but tucked away here and there are farms, wildlife management areas, refuges, and preserves. 

I turned south on a narrow palm-lined lane littered with fronds blown down by recent storms. Broad fields—young corn on my right, sorghum on my left—disappeared into distant tree lines. Mourning doves picking up grit flushed ahead two and three at a time. A mile or so on, I pulled up to a small white farmhouse.

I’ll call my host Dottie, per her request. She and her daughter, who was visiting from out of state, guided me through a tangle of ornamental trees and vines, through a backyard gate to a levy bounded by rusting members of a border fence that extended out of sight east and west. Below the top of the levy, the steel members ran into a concrete retaining wall that dropped ten feet or so to a resaca brimming after recent rains. Thirty yards beyond the water, a sorghum field ran another two hundred yards to a line of trees that marked the Rio Grande. 

Dottie, in her seventies I’d guess, had grown up here on the farm her family had owned and operated since the early 1920s. As a little girl, she’d often sat at this spot, when the levy sloped gently to the resaca, to watch birds and farm work.

She married and moved away. When her husband died in 1998, she moved back “home.” In the early 2000s, in response to the increase in illegal immigration, the federal government acquired the narrow strip of land atop the levy and built the fence. Dottie stood talking, a native South Texan unbothered by the mid-spring heat while I sweated and slapped at mosquitoes. 

“Mostly, they climb up over there,” she said, pointing eastward to a gentle northward bend just beyond the edge of her yard. “A man fell there and broke his neck.” She believes that during daylight hours, the open field serves as an effective deterrent. Still, they come. Recently as she watched from her back yard, a man passed along the levy only a few feet from where she stood. She thought he might be a farm worker. Then three more passed. Then fourteen. She called Border Patrol.

This past winter, a woman broke both ankles jumping from the top of the fence down to the levy. Dottie found her sitting in one of the front fields where her companions had abandoned her. 

Dottie said that when she was a girl, only a few farm workers from Mexico came through, and they nearly always went back. When she first moved back home, she didn’t care for Border Patrol, but as the number of crossers increased, she began to feel taken advantage of. “One night a young man came to my door. He had the saddest story. I gave a little money and something to eat, and he left. I thought and thought. I picked up the phone and called Border Patrol. Then I cried for a week.”

Over the years, Dottie came to appreciate Border Patrol and counts her relationships with officers among the greater satisfactions of life on the river. Although she’s quick to call, she doesn’t live in fear. “The bad guys don’t want to engage anyone this close to the river,” she said. “I feel much safer here than I would in town.”

Dottie has spoken to other journalists. “They never write about consequences,” she said. “It’s easy to talk about compassion, about being welcoming. Please be strong and write about consequences.”

A cooling breeze picked up and cleared the mosquitoes. Despite the proximity of urban density, Dottie’s farm felt as remote as the Brush Country ranches to the north. “I love it here. I love the quiet,” she said. “If someone offered me a trillion dollars to leave, I wouldn’t take it.”

Alice Wilson Hope Park sits just above the Rio Grande in downtown Brownsville. Along the park’s southern edge, a tall border fence blocks access to the river. A few kids played in the shallows beneath the Gateway International Bridge, moving back and forth between countries. The only easy access to the river lies on the Mexican side. On the American side, coils of razor wire run through the streamside brush. I walked a few hundred yards upriver. Along the way, just across the fence, on American soil that I couldn’t reach, groups of guardsmen and Border Patrol agents sat in their vehicles. Life vests lay along the footpath. Discarded clothing hung from razor wire near the top of the fence. 

I wanted to get down to the river bank to see something other than familiar media images. Surely the app that I’ve used to find good duck hunting spots would reveal a likely stretch of unfortified river bank.

Fifteen minutes later, I parked near an open border fence gate, walked up to a DPS cruiser, and tapped on the tinted driver side window. No response. Likewise, the few Guard vehicles looked unoccupied. I saw or heard no one, and I could smell river through the tangle of vines, trees, and brush. I waded into waist-high grass, mindful of how much good my snake boots were doing me back in the truck.

About ten yards in, I heard music, then laughter, talking, and singing. I saw light and patches of color that appeared to be tarpaulin shelters. Someone behind me yelled. A DPS officer. I walked back out to the road and introduced myself. He politely insisted that I step to the back of the vehicle and asked to see credentials. I thought about Dottie and consequences and wondered who at TAC I could get on the phone in the next thirty seconds. Fortunately, another, calmer officer who’d seen me checking the vehicle walked up, followed by a big, friendly guardsman from the Deep South who seemed more interested than concerned when I told them what I was up to and for whom. The excitable officer left. His calmer colleague reminded me that agencies have media contacts to help people like me. I assured him I had checked those boxes. He looked toward the riverside thicket and said, “We have a lot of equipment in there.”

Seeing the sweat running down his face, I suddenly felt thoughtless, ridiculous. But not too ridiculous to ask him a few questions I knew he couldn’t answer. He was apologetic but firm. 

I felt guilty about troubling three working stiffs trying to do their job. And I still wish I could’ve talked to that guardsman. 

In early May, about nine miles north of my encounter with DPS, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and U.S. Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Gloria Chavez spoke at a press conference at Camp Monument, so named because it is located at the site of the Battle of Palo Alto, the opening conflict in the U.S. war with Mexico. No doubt any symbolism was purely coincidental. 

Secretary Mayorkas spoke about “building lawful pathways that will provide a safe and orderly way for individuals who qualify for relief under United States law to reach the United States safely … We are building on the success of our parole processes that we announced on January 5 for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. We saw a 95 percent drop in the number of encounters of those individuals at our Southern Border because we built lawful pathways for them to access, and that is the model that we are building on.”

Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security is a prolific builder of pathways. Since Joe Biden took office, Texas’s border security apparatus has found itself at cross-purposes with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. DPS’s job is to block potential border crossers. Under the current dispensation, Border Patrol’s job, especially near Ports of Entry like Brownsville, is to process migrants presenting themselves for asylum. Therefore, Texas’s border enforcement team tries to keep migrants from reaching Border Patrol agents.

During the weeks leading up to the end of Title 42, as thousands of migrants amassed across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, the State of Texas constructed a section of wire fence to block illegal crossers. Shortly thereafter, Border Patrol, with the help of the City of Brownsville, removed the fence with a backhoe and cut a path from the river to the top of the levy, and establish a processing center—Camp Monument—a few miles to the north, where migrants would be processed and passed to Catholic Charities or simply released. 

About 300 migrants per day were passing through Camp Monument when troopers rebuilt the wire fence. Border Patrol requested a gate so that personnel could reach anyone on the south side of the fence who might need medical care. DPS complied. Almost immediately, according to my sources, photos surfaced showing Border Patrol agents opening the gate, allowing groups of 200 to 300 people through to be loaded on buses and carried to the processing center. 

By the time I arrived in South Texas, on May 16, frustrated Border Patrol agents who had been eager to speak to a journalist refused to say a word, even with assurance of anonymity. A few of their recently retired colleagues did speak to me, however. I believe that most of the agents working along our Southern Border want to block, apprehend, and deport undocumented aliens. But orders are orders. 

After the Texas Revolution of 1836, brigands from the Republic of Texas and Mexico moved into the lawless and contested Nueces Strip, the vast brush country and coastal plains between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, to steal livestock, burn property, and kill anyone who resisted. Mexicans called the region Desierto de los Muertos, Desert of the Dead. During periods of heavy illegal immigration, the region still lives up to the name 

James Clement ranches on his family’s land in Brooks County. He invited me to see some of the damage caused by undocumented aliens and the smugglers who guide them. He, his foreman, Fernando Cervantes, and retired foreman Arnold Hayes took me on a south to north tour along a ranch road where, a few nights before, two unpursued pickups driven by human smugglers ran through four heavy pipe gates, entering at the south end of the ranch and exiting onto the highway at the north end. One of the gates was destroyed. The others were salvageable. Just another night in rural South Texas.

James and Fernando believe the drivers were on a scouting expedition and probably weren’t carrying people or drugs. They might not be back for months, but they needed to know whether they could get through if they were being pursued. A security camera caught the trucks, but not the license plates. Somehow they avoided cameras on surrounding ranches and area Border Patrol cameras. They know their territory.

James is in his late thirties. He served as a Marine in the war in Afghanistan, and is currently a major in the reserves. Over five months in 2021, he served as “town mayor” to Afghan refugees at a base in Virginia. “Our job was to help teach them to be American citizens,” he said. “Some of them were our allies in a twenty-year war, but they still have to jump through hoops to become citizens.” 

The cartels control all illegal cross-border commerce, including human smuggling. Contra the sentimental myth of the young mother walking hundreds of miles with her baby in her arms, today’s migrants are guided over most of their journey. By the time they reach Raymondville, Edinburg, and other border towns, they’re in vehicles and will bail out only to get around check stations and other concentrated law enforcement. The coyotes use mapping apps, often follow pre-plotted routes, and increasingly drive through the brush, avoiding roads and cameras. 

Between rides, migrants do sometimes walk miles at a time. I can attest from personal experience that South Texas thornscrub makes for brutal going. Except for windmill tanks and wildlife guzzlers, surface water is scarce to nonexistent. Summertime temperatures routinely hit triple digits. Western diamondback rattlesnakes are as common as dirt. The brush guides, who often keep to the middle of the pack so as not to be identified on camera, push their charges hard to keep pickup schedules. Things happen. Migrants who can’t keep up are left. Usually the guide will take the straggler’s phone, drop a pin on the mapping app, and leave. After he’s safely out of the area, the guide may or may not forward the pin to local law enforcement or Border Patrol.

As we rolled along between busted gates, Fernando pointed out a spot where he recently noticed a flock of vultures working over something back in the brush. The corpse belonged to an adult male. He’d been there about two weeks. Days later, local law enforcement received a video taken in that area. It showed the coyote taking a man’s phone and what little money he carried.

There have been seven human corpses found at the ranch over the past year. Prior to 2021, there had been none. 

I followed Fernando into the brush. From the road, lush vegetation hid acres of trash—discarded backpacks, clothes, water bottles, wrappers, shoes. Ranch employees fill a large dumpster at least once a month but never catch up. At the north gate, Fernando pointed to matted vegetation beneath the brush. “They lie up in there and wait for their rides.” 

James, like most South Texas ranchers nowadays, runs a hunting operation. This past hunting season, a man knocked on the door of the house where the dog handler stays, and calmly asked for the Wi-Fi password. The dog handler ordered him off the property and called Border Patrol. The trespasser, almost certainly a brush guide dropping pins with his mapping app, left in no hurry. Border Patrol arrived about an hour later. 

James said, “I would really love to live on this ranch with my wife and children, but it just isn’t safe. This lawlessness is on the verge of destroying a way of life. If you aren’t well established, the cost and time involved in working with Border Patrol and law enforcement, paying for security, and repairing damage will drive you out of business. This is happening on American soil.”

My border enforcement sources, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, agreed that the reported drop in the number of crossings was temporary, if not illusory, and that the concentration of Border Patrol and DPS in the Lower Rio Grande Valley over the past several weeks would force smugglers and migrants upriver. On May 17, a senior source told me that intelligence predicted new surges in the middle of the following week. Four days later, on a rainy Sunday morning, I left the ranch in Jim Hogg County where I had been staying for the past several days and headed to Eagle Pass.

Things seemed orderly. I passed a Border Patrol vehicle towing the narrowest airboat I’ve ever seen. Surprisingly heavy traffic passed back and forth across the international bridge. Beyond the border fence, along the river, heavy DPS presence and new razor wire reflected expectations. 

Driving north on Highway 277 toward Del Rio, I looked out over the few miles of brush between me and the Rio Grande and wondered how far from towns the most desperate and determined would be willing to cross the river. The sections of fence extending from the bridges in border towns run only a few miles up and downriver. Beyond, crossers might have to navigate a dozen or so miles of brush to reach lonely stretches of highway where they could be picked up. Still, those with a good chance of obtaining asylum, especially those with children, typically want to cross as close as possible to civilization where they can present themselves to Border Patrol. The bad guys keep to the brush. 

A few miles to the east, in central Maverick County, Ben Binnion manages a cattle and hunting operation on 23,000 acres. At least, he used to run a few cattle whenever there was enough grass, never a certainty in droughty country. Over the past two and a half years, migrants have cut fences five or six times per night. In 2022, illegal crossers caused about $300,000 in damages. The ranch pays a full-time employee just to repair fencing and pick up trash. “Nobody around here can run cattle,” Binnion said. “If your cattle get out on the highway, and somebody hits them, you’re liable. The illegals even cut cross-fences you can step over.”

Binnion lived on the ranch for a while, but like James Clement, he moved his family to town because of safety concerns. “Ten years ago, when I started here, Border Patrol apprehended thirty-seven individuals and had about 100 got-aways the entire year. During the two months leading up to the 2016 election, traffic ran about what it has the past couple weeks. When Trump got in, it virtually stopped overnight. In January 2021, it skyrocketed. Last night, Border Patrol apprehended forty-five with about seventy-five got-aways. A few weeks ago, they were catching forty or more per shift.” In the three months leading up to the end of Title 42, his cameras caught twenty to thirty groups per night. About 90 percent were young adults 18 to 30 years old, about 85 percent male. 

While most of the migrants apprehended on the ranch are from Mexico and Central America, an incomplete list of represented countries includes Uzbekistan, Cuba, the Congo, Haiti, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. 

Deadly consequences rise along with migrant numbers. Binnion said, “Historically, we recovered three to five dead bodies per year. In 2022, we found twenty-one.” In June of last year, he started a Facebook group to upload photos from his cellular cameras. “I wanted to show people from north of San Antonio what we’re dealing with down here, that it’s a hundred times worse than what they’re seeing on the news.” In three months, his posts were reaching more than 1.5 million people. In September he started receiving threats. Then his wife received threatening calls and texts on her cell phone. Then came messages mentioning Facebook photos of their children. DPS and local law enforcement were unable to trace the numbers. Binnion made his Facebook group private. 

Near the bridge in Del Rio, guardsmen stood over a few sweating, bedraggled men wearing daypacks. As in Eagle Pass, DPS kept a heavy presence along the river. In the broad, green stretch between the fence and the razor-wired riverside cane and brush, deer browsed and lay beneath mesquite and live oak trees. I could imagine a beautiful park there, or a public green space, but sometimes you can’t have nice things. 

On June 1, I checked with my border enforcement sources. As predicted, Border Patrol apprehensions at Eagle Pass increased 300 percent from mid-May, with a peak of about 1,600 per day. No word on got-aways, but an apprehension rate as high as 50 percent is unlikely. 

Meanwhile, hopeful migrants who have completed their CPB One application forms can appear for an appointment at any of eleven U.S. Ports of Entry (POE)—potentially 500 per day per POE. On July 1, the maximum number per POE per day will increase to 550. Should less than the maximum number of scheduled applicants appear at a POE, unscheduled hopefuls who meet minimum requirements will be issued a Notice to Appear on Recognizance and released in the U.S.

In fiscal year 2021, the number of Border Patrol apprehensions increased 400 percent, to 1.7 million, not including got-aways. In 2022, apprehensions increased to 2.37 million. Try as they might, the Biden administration can’t explain these numbers away by blaming climate change or a “broken immigration system.” They can reduce the number of recorded apprehensions through at least 2024, but the overall influx of immigrants is likely to remain steady or increase. Potential migrants still in Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico needn’t take the word of the cartels. The hundreds of thousands who’ve walked through the Ports of Entry have cell phones.