Number of attempted crossings at southern U.S. border hits 21-year high
The numbers were the highest since March 2000, when more than 223,000 immigrants were stopped by the Border Patrol at the southern border. Of the 188,829 border crossers in June, nearly 105,000 were expelled back into Mexico without being given the chance to claim asylum in the U.S. due to the government’s use of Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authority used to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
MCALLEN, Texas – In the pre-dawn darkness, Border Patrol Agent Jesse Moreno slowed his SUV and raked the beam of his flashlight across a stretch of flooded scrub, searching for any signs of life: flattened grass, a slight rustle, a sneaker.
Voices crackled in hushed whispers over his radio, as more agents searched from the other side of the brush. Signaled by another agent over the radio, Moreno jumped from his white-and-green Border Patrol SUV and into the swampy marsh. He arrived just in time to see the agent cuffing a migrant. Two more crouched nearby in the murky, knee-high water, wet, filthy and swarmed by clouds of mosquitos.
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The men – two from Mexico, one from Honduras – were just three of the more than 2,100 migrants that agents with the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley Sector are encountering on average each day.
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The agency's approach to missing migrants has evolved amid an increase in migration and deaths. Brooks County — about 75 miles north of the Rio Grande Valley — has become the Border Patrol's laboratory, a place to test approaches they're already extending across the border. A three-person missing-migrant team trained in forensics is working with an intelligence officer to help identify migrant remains. The agency also added equipment and technology to help locate stranded migrants faster. It installed more than 1,400 rescue signs across the region labeled with GPS coordinates.
Across the southwest border, agents have encountered more than 1.2 million migrants this year and are on pace to surpass totals reached in 2000, when agents apprehended 1.7 million migrants, according to statistics released last week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees Border Patrol. In the Rio Grande Valley Sector alone, agents have encountered more than 359,000 migrants -- far more than any other sector along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Add to those numbers the ongoing threat of the coronavirus and new policies ordered by the administration of President Joe Biden and Border Patrol officials said they're struggling to stem the flow.
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Latin American economies gutted by COVID-19 and the hope that Biden will treat migrants more favorably than his predecessor are spurring the ever-increasing numbers of migrants at the border. In the Rio Grande Valley, that's leading to more smuggling attempts, foot-crossings, stash houses and increases in nearly every category tracked by Border Patrol, Moreno said.
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During a time of year – the sweltering South Texas summer months – when migration typically dips, the numbers have only steadily climbed. USA TODAY was granted access this month to follow along with Border Patrol agents as they patrolled the border near McAllen.
“Every day is a challenge for all of our agents across the board, just because of the volume of migration in the Rio Grande Valley,” Moreno said.
The border's high numbers may be artificially inflated because agents are counting repeat-crossers who are expelled under Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows agents to quickly deport migrants to Mexico to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, an advocacy group.
In the Rio Grande Valley, most single adult migrants are expelled under Title 42, while families with small children and unaccompanied minors are allowed into the United States to await their immigration hearing. The Biden administration is considering rescinding the policy, which has expelled more than 950,000 migrants since enacted in March 2020, according to agency statistics. About one-third of migrants arriving at the border are repeat crossers.
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Policies such as Title 42 impede migrants' rights to seek asylum in the United States and place them in dangerous Mexican border towns, Gaubeca said.
"We know the U.S. has the resources and capability to create a welcoming, efficient, humanitarian process for people seeking safety here," she said. "These are people looking for safety and to provide for their families."
The three men collared by Moreno and his fellow agents were walked through the sloshy brush to a road next to the border wall. They were handed paper masks and made to empty their pockets and remove the shoelaces from their shoes. A white van then shuttled them to a Border Patrol station for processing. The men were likely later expelled under Title 42.
As the number of migrants at the border continues to swell, where to temporarily house them in the Rio Grande Valley is a growing concern. As of last week, agents had more than 3,000 migrants in their custody but the capacity to hold only about 1,200 migrants in their nine stations and a temporary facility in nearby Donna, Texas, Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Brian Hastings said.
Also troubling are the number of large groups made up of mostly families with children that cross over and turn themselves in, tying up transports and resources as smugglers try to sneak past other parts of the border, Hastings said. This year, the sector has seen 69 groups of 100 migrants or more, up from 63 for the entire fiscal year in 2019, the last year they saw large numbers arriving at the border, he said.
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“Almost everything we track is up significantly,” Hastings said.
Stash houses create risky situation for migrants, agents
Just as dawn inked into the morning sky, Moreno rumbled his SUV down a road along the border wall. A call came over the radio: A group of migrants detected in a home under construction in the tony subdivision of Tanglewood, a cluster of one- and two-story elegant homes with manicured lawns in nearby Mission, Texas.
Cameras on towers triggered by sensors along the border detected the group as they crossed into the United States under the cover of night, Moreno said. Border agents then followed their trail to the Tanglewood subdivision and discovered them huddled inside the unfinished living room of a home under construction, left behind by smugglers who had promised to take them further north.
As Moreno arrived at the scene, 14 men and one woman squatted on the curb outside the home wearing paper masks and flanked by Border Patrol agents, who jotted down their names and slid their belongings into large Ziploc bags. Some were handcuffed to one another.
Juan Luis Isiordia-Serafin, 30, said he had paid a smuggler $13,000 to bring him and his partner, Vanessa Granados-Hereso, 33, from his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, to Houston, where they hoped to find jobs. Granados-Hereso said Mexico’s economy had been decimated by the coronavirus. The pair left behind two children, ages 11 and 13.
Granados-Hereso said jobs in Mexico were nearly non-existent and as their income dwindled, the pair made the difficult decision to pay a smuggler to get them into the United States. It was their third attempt to cross the border.
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Most critiqued the administration's continuation of Title 42. The CDC today confirmed with The New York Times that it would continue the policy.Since President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office more than six months ago, their administration's immigration policies and campaign promises have often been in the spotlight.
“If this wasn’t necessary, believe me, I’d be with my children,” Granados-Hereso said through sobs. “All this time I’ve missed them like you can’t imagine.”
Migrants abandoned by smugglers in stash houses such as at the unbuilt home in Tanglewood have become a nearly daily occurrence, Moreno said. Criminal groups hide groups of migrants in hotels, motels, trailers, warehouses and, at times, overgrown brush, he said. Sometimes, they hire locals to bring them out in small groups and try to circumvent the Border Patrol checkpoints further north. Often, they just leave them, he said.
Recently, agents discovered a group of 80 migrants left behind by smugglers in an undeveloped swath of brush near the border. They had been sleeping on cardboard boxes and taking turns in a small trailer to escape the blistering sun, he said. Smugglers often confiscate migrants’ cellphones, so they don’t alert authorities. Agents have apprehended 6,700 migrants from 375 stash houses since January – up 500% from the previous year, Moreno said.
“A lot of times they’re held there against their will,” Moreno said. “They want to leave but without them having their phones or knowing where they’re going, it makes it nearly impossible.”
The rise in migrants stranded by smugglers has also led to sharp increases in the number of search-and-rescue missions Border Patrol agents have been called on.
Agents have performed 789 rescues and have also counted around 60 migrant deaths in the sector this year, Hastings said. In 2019, sector agents performed 794 rescues for the whole year and counted 69 migrant deaths.
The Missing Migrant Program, started in the Rio Grande Valley four years ago, is designed to prevent migrants from getting lost by using informational campaigns and placing safety placards and rescue beacons throughout the region, especially in stretches of wilderness where migrants are commonly lost, said Brandon Copp, a Border Patrol supervisory agent who oversees the program.
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The placards instruct lost migrants to dial 911 and display a unique code that, if relayed to a 911 operator, acts as coordinates that help locate the migrant. The safety beacons look like miniature cell towers and have a button that, when pressed, signal exact GPS coordinates to an operations center, allowing operators there to dispatch agents to the migrants' position. More than 1,400 safety placards and 18 beacons have been deployed around the Rio Grande Valley, with another 30 beacons on the way this year, Copp said.
The program also helps identify migrants who have died, helping to bring closure to families, he said. Fingerprints from remains are entered in a Border Patrol database that holds records of around 200 million migrants around the world, Copp said. The sector has been able to identify around 92% of the bodies it’s found.
"We’ve had a significant increase in our migrant crossings, which have increased our rescue efforts and, sadly, our migrant deaths, as well,” Copp said. “The positive side to that is: Our rescue efforts are working. We’re getting better and smarter at what we’re doing.”
'There's going to be a point we won't be able to handle it'
Families with young children who make it across have the best shot of all: Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley routinely allow them to enter the United States to await their immigration hearings.
After processing them, agents bus them to the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, where they stay temporarily until they can be reunited with family members in the United States.
Before entering the center, they’re screened for COVID-19. Those who test positive are taken to area hotels for quarantining and further tests. Those who test negative are allowed to enter the cavernous corner building across from the McAllen bus station.
On a recent afternoon, toddlers inside the center staggered around and squealed with delight. Moms balanced diaper bags and plastic envelopes holding immigration documents and plane tickets. Hundreds of migrants sat on folding picnic chairs and watched the animated film “The Croods” from a flat-screen TV perched on a wall. A woman’s voice in Spanish came over the loudspeaker and alerted families whose turn it was to contact relatives in the United States.
The sprawling facility, a former nightclub, accommodates up to 1,200 people, said Sister Norma Pimentel, who oversees the center. Lately, they’ve been accepting around 800 migrants a day, she said.
Border Patrol officials have warned her that if Title 42 is rescinded, she can expect to see an additional 200 to 300 migrants a day. Across the river in Reynosa, Mexico, around 2,000 migrants are sleeping in tents in the city’s main plaza and surrounding shelters, waiting to enter the United States, Pimentel said. Those numbers – and Mexico’s rising COVID-19 rate – raises concerns, she said.
“There’s going to be a point we won’t be to handle it if it continues like this,” Pimentel said.
'Trying to swim upriver'
Moreno, 40, pointed his SUV down a gravel road near the Anzalduas International Bridge, craning his neck out the window to look at the damp ground below.
Moreno grew up not far from this stretch of wilderness, in Alamo, Texas, seven miles west of McAllen. He learned Spanish in junior high from Latino friends. His father was a postal worker and he saw how the steady federal paycheck kept food on the table and helped get himself and two siblings through college.
Moreno said he naturally gravitated toward being a Border Patrol agent, a job where he uses his Spanish daily and that keeps him outdoors and helping people.
Migrant advocates have complained for years that Border Patrol agents have abused asylum-seekers, both in the field and in detention facilities, and the abuses have been the subject of multiple lawsuits by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
Moreno said he's heard the allegations and disagrees with the characterization of Border Patrol agents as abusive toward migrants. At least, he said, it's not something he's seen on his watch.
"Most of our agents are family members – fathers, sons, brothers, sisters – and we’re humane," he said. "We’re all humans."
Moreno stepped on the brakes of his SUV and jumped out, noticing something in the grassy shoulder. Tufts of grass were pushed down. He followed the small trail deeper into the surrounding brush. Within 20 feet, hidden in overgrown thorn trees and sawgrass, he came across a makeshift wooden ladder – used by migrants and smugglers to cross streams and scale the nearby border wall.
He radioed it in then stomped on the ladder’s rungs, snapping them off, one by one.
“The numbers will continue to go up: It’s like you’re trying to swim upriver,” Moreno said. “But we’re protecting our community and accomplishing our mission by deterring and apprehending illegal migrants. That’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
To volunteer or donate to the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, visit their website at: https://www.catholiccharitiesrgv.org/HumanitarianRespiteCenter.shtml.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A day on the border: Border Patrol agents in Texas detain thousands of migrants each day as illegal crossings hit record highs