MCALLEN, Texas — What does it mean to secure the border? We hear the phrase every time Congress debates immigration reform, usually from immigration hawks who insist that before we extend any leniency to illegal immigrants, even a limited amnesty for those brought to the United States as children, we must first secure the border. President Trump has taken it a step further with his dogged insistence on an actual border wall, which has become synonymous with border security in the broader immigration debate.
Regardless of Trump, Republicans and Democrats approach the border question from opposite poles. The incessant calls from the Right for border security imply that our southern border is not secure, and that if we would only hire more Border Patrol agents and build more walls, we could secure the border once and for all. Democrats tend to recoil at the mention of a wall and insist, despite all politically realties, on a standalone legislative fix for the Dreamers, no changes to chain migration, and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants now living in the United States.
None of this, Right or Left, has much to do with the reality of the U.S.-Mexico border. The fact is, the border is far more secure today than it was ten or fifteen years ago. But it’s also true that the border will never be free from drug smuggling and illegal crossings so long as Americans want drugs and foreigners want to come here. Lost, too, in Washington’s desultory immigration debate is the stubborn fact that the countries to our south are in various stages of societal collapse, which makes the incentives to cross the border, even at great personal risk, all but irresistible.
These realities are almost never debated, much less acknowledged, in our nation’s capital. Even referring to “the border,” as if it’s a single place, is inaccurate. In Texas, where the vast majority of illegal migrants are apprehended today, there are at least three border regions, each with its own distinct history and geography and culture. In the state’s far western corner there’s El Paso, a fast-growing city that together with Juarez in Mexico and Las Cruces in New Mexico forms an international, bilingual metro region of more than 2.5 million people. Further east there’s the vast and thinly populated Trans-Pecos, marked by Big Bend National Park, which is so remote and rugged that it acts as a natural border wall.
Then there’s the Rio Grande Valley in the southeastern corner of the state, which is not a valley at all but a floodplain. That’s important if you want to understand the place — and if you don’t understand the Valley you can’t understand the problems along our southern border. Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach, a Rio Grande Valley native, once said the region’s early Anglo settlers used the term because they thought “valley is a prettier word.” But they were also evoking its fertileness. Irrigation and agricultural machinery arrived in the early 20th century and transformed the Rio Grande Valley into sprawling farmland, drawing huge numbers of laborers from Mexico. Today, the region is predominately Hispanic, ethnically and culturally — even most Anglo residents of the Valley speak English with a Mexican accent. Nowhere along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border are the historical, familial, and economic ties between the two nations more pronounced.
In recent years, the Rio Grande Valley has become ground zero for illegal border crossings. The United States Border Patrol divvies up the U.S.-Mexico border into nine sectors, from San Diego in the west to Rio Grande Valley in the east. The Tucson sector was once the busiest for illegal crossings, with more than 600,000 apprehensions in 2000. Today, it’s the Rio Grande Valley. Total apprehensions along the border have dropped dramatically from their peak in 2000, but they’ve been trending upward in the Rio Grande Valley since 2012 despite a sharp overall decline after Trump assumed office last year. In fiscal 2017, there were more than 132,500 apprehensions — far more than any of the other eight sectors, and nearly as much as all other sectors combined.
A River and a Fence in South Texas
I went to the Rio Grande Valley last week to try to understand what “securing the border” would mean along its busiest stretch for illegal crossings. Before heading south, I met with Fred Burton, chief intelligence officer for Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm in Austin, Texas, and an expert on border security. He tells me it would be possible to secure the border completely, but no one would like it.
“You can surge assets into certain sectors, predicated on intelligence-led policing,” he says. “You can surge resources into certain areas to reduce or restrict the flow of drugs north and all the other stuff coming south. But in order to secure the border, if you think Berlin wall, you would have to have military deployments from the west coast to the east. It would have to be handed over to the United States military.”
Obviously, that will never happen short of a high-level assassination or a terrorist attack originating from Mexico. But under normal conditions, there is zero public support for the deployment of the American military along our southern border. That means the border is never going to be entirely secure, no matter how many times Trump and the Republicans clamor for border security.
So what is the goal of U.S. policy on the border? Essentially, it’s triage. Down in McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol agents are simply trying to keep up with the constant flow of people and drugs coming over the Rio Grande River. I met border agent Robert Rodriguez outside the U.S. Border Patrol’s 68,000 square-foot McAllen Station, which is responsible for patrolling 53 miles of the Rio Grande in a densely-populated area of the Valley. Rodriguez, a ten-year veteran of the Border Patrol and a native of the Valley, tells me their goal is to exert “operational control” of the border, which ultimately means stopping as many illegal migrants and seizing as much contraband as possible. But as a practical matter it also means knowing what’s going on where. As we drive past a wildlife refuge near the river, Rodriguez explains that the place is wired: “We have ground sensors, we have motion-activated drawbridge cameras, aerostats” — radar-equipped blimps — “and what all that does is give our agents situational awareness,” he says. “It’s a combination, it’s not just a wall or technology or more agents to throw down there.”
One reason Border Patrol doesn’t rely on a wall in the Rio Grande Valley is because there are only 55 noncontiguous miles of fencing in this sector, a small share of the 700 miles of border fencing Congress funded in 2006. Most of that has been erected on federally-owned land west of El Paso. But east of El Paso along the 1,254-mile Texas-Mexico border, the majority of the land is privately owned, making land acquisition and construction time-consuming and expensive. As a result, most of the border fencing in Texas is concentrated around some two-dozen official border crossings (including a hand-drawn ferry at Los Ebanos, just west of McAllen).
Just south of McAllen, some stretches of fencing skirt federal wildlife refuge land and swaths of farmland that hug the levee. Rodriguez and I drive up on the levee and pass through an 18-foot-high steel gate. The fencing here consists of bollards — steel beams filled with concrete — astride a series of gates atop the levee about a mile north of the river. In between the gates, the fencing is only about six feet high, but the south-facing side of the levee along those stretches is a 12-foot vertical concrete embankment — a wall, essentially.
But it’s an incomplete wall. Many of the gate-openings on the levee don’t actually have gates, because federal funding ran out. (The areas without gates are equipped instead with motion-activated cameras.) After funding for the fence was approved in 2006 it went up piecemeal, hampered by lawsuits and subsequent funding battles. In many ways it became an object lesson in government incompetence: massive gate openings without gates. If Trump ever gets funding for his wall, Rio Grande Valley sector will be first in line, and the first thing to go up will be gates for the existing fence.
In the meantime, U.S. Customs and Border Protection employs every conceivable means to stop migrant smuggling and drug trafficking here. More than 3,000 Border Patrol agents are assigned to the sector — and they don’t just patrol in trucks and SUVs. They also use ATVs, dirt-bikes, bicycles, horses, and K-9 units, all of which are supported by riverboats, helicopters, blimps, and a tactical command center that monitors sensors and cameras scattered across the sector.
To avoid all that, smugglers and traffickers are constantly trying to draw agents away from the river. To do that, they exploit weaknesses inherent in U.S. law enforcement. Rodriguez and I weren’t out long before an anonymous “concerned citizen” call came in reporting ten to twelve people being loaded into a brown Chevy Envoy in a neighborhood near the river (in small towns like Hidalgo and Mission, tucked between McAllen and the Rio Grande, some neighborhoods come nearly to the banks of the river). The border agents know that calls like these are often fake, but they have to respond as if they’re genuine. We race toward the reported location of the vehicle, passing by other agents and an Hidalgo County Sherriff’s deputy, all searching the same general area. This goes on for about a half-hour and no one sees a brown Envoy. Eventually everyone goes back to their patrols. If the purpose of the “concerned citizen” call was to draw Border Patrol away from the river, it worked.
A similar thing happens the next day while I’m riding along on a patrol with Customs and Border Protection in a Blackhawk helicopter. A 911 operator radioes the crew about a “lost subject” call that came from about 12 miles north of the river. The pilots tell me these kind of calls are not uncommon. The smugglers know that rescuing a lost person takes priority over patrolling the river, so they’ll send someone out to a remote area to call 911 on a cell phone. The operator pings the phone’s location and transmits the GPS coordinates to the helicopter crew. Because the smugglers know where the call came from, they know roughly how much time they’ll have with no helicopters monitoring the river. It’s impossible to know if that’s what happened to us, but after flying 30 minutes north to the coordinates and circling the area for another half-hour, it’s seems likely that whoever made the call wasn’t really lost.
This game of cat and mouse carries on day and night along the border. Rodriguez explains that the smuggling operations are highly sophisticated, involving vast networks of people on both sides of the border, including safe houses in upscale neighborhoods in McAllen and Brownsville. “If they can get across and get to one of those safe houses,” he says, “they essentially disappear.”
Often the traffickers will send multiple groups across at once in different locations, wagering that one of them will likely get through. While I’m driving around with Rodriguez, a call comes in that a group of nine people are crossing on the east side of the McAllen Station area. A minute later, a call comes in from the Customs and Border Protection helicopter (an AS350 A-Star) that a group of four are crossing on the west side. We’re closer to the west side, patrolling along a dirt road atop the levee, so Rodriguez heads toward that call.
We soon hear the inchoate thumping of a helicopter somewhere ahead and turn at one of the gateless openings in the fence on the levee. About a hundred yards back, two other Border Patrol trucks are parked in a bend on the side of the dirt road. The helicopter is making tight circles over a patch of dense brush and trees just off the road to our left. The agents, including a K-9 unit, are already in there somewhere, looking for the four men the pilot spotted a few minutes ago. We get out and Rodriguez heads into the brush. I follow and he soon spots a man hiding under a fallen tree.
Rodriguez calls out to him and the man — a Honduran, we later learn — comes out without resisting. But he’s upset. He asks Rodriguez why he doesn’t just let him go back to the Mexican side of the river, or if he can just tie him to a tree. Rodriguez says no and the man asks angrily, “Are you going to hit me? Don’t you know Jesus?”
This goes on all day up and down the river. Agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector apprehend between 300 and 500 migrants every day, some of them families who turn themselves in seeking asylum, some who try to evade Border Patrol and get away. Driving around on the levee, the radio squawks incessantly. Every five minutes or so a voice rattles off a list of numbers. “Sixty-one forty-five. Four hits. Eighty-nine thirty-two. Two hits.” The numbers refer to the location of seismic sensors and the hits refer to how many times a sensor just went off. The sensors are hidden in the dense foliage along the river, including large tracts of wildlife refuge. Every time they go off someone is supposed to go check it out. Sometimes animals set them off, sometimes it’s Border Patrol agents themselves. But most of the time it’s people.
It takes me a minute to put together what that must mean: the voice on the radio rattles off these numbers at least every ten minutes. In any given hour, there are dozens of hits on the sensors. If even two-thirds of them are migrants or smugglers, it means the otherwise quiet river-lands and wildlife refuges along the Rio Grande are in fact alive with people moving unseen through the brush, all day long, every day.
The Scramble for Justice on the Border
Andy Nogueras is a fast-talking, mustachioed federal public defender at the U.S. District Court in downtown McAllen. He was the fourth public defender hired there twenty years ago. Now, his office has 17 lawyers and four investigators, which is barely enough to keep up with the caseload. He says it’s always been busy but things have changed since last year. They’ve seen a sharp increase of defendants with no criminal or deportation history. “For sixteen years under Bush and Obama, the U.S. attorney’s office would prosecute the worst crimes, like murder and rape,” he says. “Now they prosecute illegal entry. They prosecute everything.”
The change came last April, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors across the country to increase prosecutions for the misdemeanor crime of illegal entry. The idea was to discourage illegal immigration but the practical result at the federal court in McAllen, which already handles one of the busiest illegal immigration dockets in the country, has been the inundation of magistrates’ courts with misdemeanor illegal entry cases. Even then, only a portion of those caught crossing in the Rio Grande Valley are prosecuted. “If everyone were charged, it would be crazy,” says Nogueras. “We would be overwhelmed.” He explains that his office has an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in McAllen: prosecutors will send no more than fifty misdemeanors over on Mondays and no more than forty on the others days of the week.
I’m there on a Wednesday, and there are 26 misdemeanors and six felonies on the docket. At 9 a.m. the courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby is crowded and bustling, the clink and drag of handcuffs and shackles adding to the noise. More than 30 men from Mexico and Central America must be interviewed by public defenders and investigators before arraignments begin later that morning. Nearly all the defendants are migrants caught crossing illegally in the last 48 hours.
But not all of them. Judy Pena, one of the federal public defenders in Nogueras’ office, is interviewing a 25-year-old man from Donna, Texas, a small town just 12 miles east of McAllen. Pena tells me he was brought to Texas from Mexico when he was five years old. He speaks perfect English, graduated from Donna High School, and has no criminal history. He says he was just going out for some tacos the other night and got pulled over for having a broken taillight. But because he has no legal status, he was prosecuted for illegal entry and will likely be deported. I ask whether he might qualify for DACA since he was brought here as a child and Pena says maybe, but right now he just needs an immigration lawyer.
Nogueras takes me a few floors up, to the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Randy Crane, who this morning is trying to get through sentencing for 11 men — all of them for felony illegal reentry. (Illegal entry is a misdemeanor, re-entry after deportation is a felony.) During the sentencings, Crane often repeats himself. He says things like, “This country is always going to be a prison for you,” and, “You just have to resist the temptation to come back here.” He repeats those lines a half-dozen times in the space of an hour while meting out sentences ranging from time already served to 72 months.
Riding along with a USCBP Blackhawk over the Rio Grande outside McAllen, TX. Last year, Border Patrol in RGV sector apprehended nearly as many people as all other border sectors combined. @FDRLST pic.twitter.com/OYnQxytn4M
— John D Davidson (@johnddavidson) March 6, 2018
Crane is 52 years old and a third-generation native of the Rio Grande Valley. He tells me he grew up with immigration on his conscience, partly because his father is an immigration lawyer, but also because his grandparents fled Mexico in the 1920s. According to family lore, they escaped Pancho Villa’s guerillas by hiding in a hay cart. They were, in fact, illegal immigrants, and eventually gained naturalization with President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty. Crane freely admits that the reasons his grandparents sought a new life in Texas nearly a century ago are much the same as the vast majority of those who risk illegally crossing the border today: a better life, safety, freedom. Everything their home countries lack.
He’s quick to add, however, that those who end up in his courtroom have committed other serious crimes besides illegal re-entry, and have been deported sometimes five or six times. Even so, most of their stories are similar: they got into trouble with the law at some point, whether multiple DUIs or gang-related activity like kidnapping, and served time in federal prison before being deported back to Mexico or Central America. But because they have a wife and children or other family in America, or because they’re trying to support their family in their home country, they eventually try to come back across the border.
I ask Crane whether a 30- or 50- or 70-month sentence is an effective deterrent. “When they get older, and they’re facing five or six years in federal prison if they caught trying to come back in, sometimes it is,” he says. “But for most of these guys the draw is too strong. There’s too much economic opportunity, or the violence back home is too great, or they have family here, often a wife and kids. So whatever barrier you put in place, you’ll still have hundreds of thousands coming here.”
A Rolling Humanitarian Crisis
They come in spite of manifest danger. A week earlier, more than 100 Central Americans were rescued from a semi-trailer abandoned in the city of Camargo in Tamaulipas, just across the border from Rio Grande City, Texas, about 40 miles west of McAllen. Mexican soldiers on patrol heard yelling from inside the trailer and discovered 103 migrants, including 36 minors, who said they had been trapped there for about 12 hours. They narrowly escaped the fate of another group that was rescued in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in San Antonio last July. Police found 38 people inside, including two children. Eight were dead. Two more died in the hospital.
The crossing is especially dangerous for families with small children. The number of families and unaccompanied minors has edged off its peak in 2014, when the Rio Grande Valley sector was inundated with more than 52,000 parents and children (“family units,” in CBP parlance) and nearly 50,000 unaccompanied minors. But they have not gone back down to their pre-2014 levels. Last year, for example, Border Patrol apprehended 49,896 family units in the Rio Grande Valley. By comparison, in 2013 the total was only 7,265.
Much like the border agents patrolling the river, the humanitarian response to the ongoing crisis has been a kind of triage. Since law enforcement can’t really do anything about families that cross the border and turn themselves in seeking asylum, and because federal agencies aren’t equipped to house tens of thousands of people, private charities have stepped in.
Four years ago, at the height of the crisis, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, the charitable arm of the Diocese of Brownsville, established a respite center in downtown McAllen. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was overwhelmed with thousands of children and teenagers turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents at ports of entry and elsewhere along the border, so the diocese began providing food and shelter for the minors and families. Catholic Charities initially set up its respite center in auxiliary church buildings at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in downtown McAllen.
But it soon became clear that large numbers of families and minors were going to keep coming, and the diocese decided it needed a permanent location for the center. Today, it occupies one half of a modest commercial building about a mile from the church, and consists of a large multipurpose room, bathroom and shower facilities, a small kitchen and dining area, and a play area for young children. A half-dozen full-time staff and about 50 volunteers run the place seven days a week, 365 days a year. Since its founding four years ago, more than 100,000 migrants, most of them from Central America, have passed through there. Because the flow of migrants over the border never stops, ICE and CBP never stop, and the respite center never stops.
The Greyhound bus station isn’t far, and every afternoon around 3:30 p.m. buses from ICE drop off between 60 and 120 men, women, and children newly-discharged from custody at the station. When Greyhound employees see the ICE buses pulling up they call the center, which sends a convoy of vans to pick up anyone who doesn’t have a bus ticket.
On a recent weekday afternoon, more than 100 migrants, all from Central America and nearly half of them children, file into the center and sit down in rows of chairs facing a long table at the front of the room. Most days they are greeted by Blanca Muñoz, a volunteer who says she has been coming to the center every day for the past two years, ever since she lost her husband to cancer. A vivacious woman in her sixties, Muñoz claps and shouts “bienvenidos!” as the families file in. She says sometimes the women break down and cry. “For many of them, we are the first friendly faces they have seen since they left their homes.”
The adults all take a seat and the children go off to a separate dining area for a hot meal. While they eat, center volunteers call up the adults one by one and take down their information — name, country of origin, destination, family contact — and then try to get ahold of a family member on the phone who can purchase them a bus ticket out of McAllen. Besides the discharge papers from ICE, they arrive at the center with nothing but the clothes they’re wearing — no money, no food, no water, and no way to contact friends or relatives in America. The coyotes (smugglers) take everything they have before they cross the river.
The respite center offers these families something to eat, some spare clothes, a place to shower and change, and limited medical care when necessary. But most of all the center provides logistical help in securing a bus ticket. The volunteers tell me that they try to get everyone on a bus later that same day so that as few people as possible have to stay overnight. Dozens of plastic mattresses are stacked in the corner, but the center isn’t set up for families to stay long. After all, tomorrow another group will arrive and the entire operation—food, clothing, showers, paperwork—will start all over again. “Every day it’s like this, it never stops,” says Muñoz.
I speak to one young man from Honduras who’s headed to Mississippi, where his wife has been waiting for him for six months. He says he came here to work and give his children, ages 9 and 11, a better life, and to get away from the gangs. The gangs are a thread that runs through everyone’s story. Another man, also from Honduras, is going to Colorado, where his sister and aunt live. The aunt is a U.S. citizen, the sister has been here for two years. He says the journey from Honduras was difficult because his small group was harassed along the way by Los Zetas, one of the most sophisticated and violent Mexican gangs. His sister paid $6,000 for him and his son, a toddler, to be brought across. He was a construction worker in Honduras, but says his wife got involved with a gang member there, that they were going to kill him and take his child. So he fled, and is now seeking asylum in the United States.
Technically, all these families are seeking asylum, and because they’re family units travelling with minors, ICE releases them after a day or two with orders to appear at an asylum hearing in whatever part of the country they’re trying to get to. (That’s not the case in some sectors, where parents are reportedly separated from their children on purpose.) The adults are fitted with electronic ankle monitors, which will confine them to a 75-mile radius of wherever they tell ICE is their final destination. But once they get where they’re going, most of them cut the thing off and throw it away. Many do not even bother showing up at their asylum hearings for the simple reason that they have no legitimate claims to asylum. Yes, they come from impoverished countries with a decaying social order. And yes, these places are violent. But most of these people simply come to the United States to work, and you don’t get asylum for that.
Before they head back to the bus station, the volunteers make sure families have what they need for the road. Each one is given a canvas bag of sandwiches and bottled water and a large manila envelope for their paperwork. A piece of paper attached to the outside of the envelope reads in large lettering:
“PLEASE HELP ME. I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. WHAT BUS DO I NEED TO TAKE? THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP!”
As the evening wears on, families that have managed to secure bus tickets are shuttled back to the Greyhound station. They depart for points north, east, and west, melting into the vast expanse of America, most of them to stay for good.