A day on the border: Border Patrol agents in Texas detain thousands of migrants each day as illegal crossings hit record highs

·11 min read

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 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 in time to see the agent handcuffing a migrant. Two more crouched nearby in the murky, knee-high water, wet, filthy and swarmed by clouds of mosquitoes.

One sprinted away but was quickly tackled and handcuffed by an agent. The other lay prone in the muck.

"¡No te muevas!" Moreno ordered. Don’t move!

The migrant froze.

Border Patrol Agent Jesse Moreno, right, helps fellow agents detain three men suspected of illegally crossing into the USA in the wetlands along the U.S.-Mexican border near Granjeno, Texas, on July 13. The agents detained two men from Mexico and one from Honduras.
Border Patrol Agent Jesse Moreno, right, helps fellow agents detain three men suspected of illegally crossing into the USA in the wetlands along the U.S.-Mexican border near Granjeno, Texas, on July 13. The agents detained two men from Mexico and one from Honduras.

The men – two from Mexico, one from Honduras – were three of the more than 2,100 migrants that agents with the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley Sector encounter on average each day.

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 July 16 by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol. In the Rio Grande Valley Sector, agents have encountered more than 359,000 migrants – far more than any other sector along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Add to those numbers the threat of the coronavirus and policies ordered by the administration of President Joe Biden, and Border Patrol officials said they're struggling to stem the flow.

COVID-19 raises barriers for asylum seekers

Latin American economies gutted by COVID-19 spur the ever-increasing numbers of migrants who hope Biden will treat them more favorably than his predecessor did. In the Rio Grande Valley, that's led to more smuggling attempts, foot crossings, stash houses and increases in nearly every category tracked by the Border Patrol, Moreno said.

During the sweltering South Texas summer months – when migration typically dips – the numbers have steadily climbed. USA TODAY was granted access this month to follow Border Patrol agents 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 count 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 USA to await their immigration hearing. The Biden administration is considering rescinding the policy, under which more than 950,000 migrants have been expelled since March 2020, according to agency statistics. About one-third of migrants arriving at the border are repeat crossers.

Title 42 impedes migrants' rights to seek asylum in the USA and places 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 laces from their shoes. A white van shuttled them to a Border Patrol station for processing. The men were probably expelled under Title 42.

As the number of migrants swells, the question of 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 in their nine stations and a temporary facility in nearby Donna, Texas, Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Brian Hastings said.

Large groups of families with children cross 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 such large numbers arriving at the border, he said.

“Almost everything we track is up significantly,” Hastings said.

Border Patrol agents detain more than a dozen people found hiding in a “stash house,” a vacant, under-construction home in the town of Mission, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexican border July 13.
Border Patrol agents detain more than a dozen people found hiding in a “stash house,” a vacant, under-construction home in the town of Mission, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexican border July 13.

Stash houses create risky situation for migrants, agents

As dawn brightened the morning sky, Moreno's SUV rumbled down a road along the border wall. A call came over the radio: A group of migrants was 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 triggered by sensors on towers along the border detected the group as they crossed into the USA under the cover of night, Moreno said. Border agents followed their trail to the Tanglewood subdivision and discovered them huddled inside the unfinished living room of a home, left by smugglers who had promised to take them farther north.

As Moreno arrived, 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 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 the coronavirus wrecked Mexico’s economy. The pair left two children, ages 11 and 13.

Granados-Hereso said jobs in Mexico were nearly nonexistent and as their income dwindled, the pair made the difficult decision to pay a smuggler to get them into the USA. It was their third attempt to cross the border.

“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.”

Smugglers abandon migrants in stash houses such as the unbuilt home in Tanglewood nearly every day, Moreno said. Criminal groups hide migrants in hotels, motels, trailers, warehouses or even overgrown brush, he said. Sometimes, they hire locals to bring them out in small groups and try to circumvent the Border Patrol checkpoints farther north. Often, they just leave them, he said.

Agents discovered 80 migrants left 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, Moreno said. Smugglers often confiscate migrants’ cellphones, so they don’t alert authorities. Agents 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 led to sharp increases in search-and-rescue missions Border Patrol agents have been called on.

Agents have performed 789 rescues and counted about 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.

The placards instruct lost migrants to dial 911 and display a 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, signals exact GPS coordinates to an operations center, allowing operators to dispatch agents to the migrants' position. More than 1,400 safety placards and 18 beacons have been deployed around the Rio Grande Valley, and 30 more beacons are on the way this year, Copp said.

The program helps identify migrants who died, so families might have closure, he said. Fingerprints from remains are entered in a Border Patrol database that holds records of about 200 million migrants around the world, Copp said. The sector has identified about 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: Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley routinely allow them to enter the USA to await immigration hearings.

After processing them, agents bus them to the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, where they stay until they can be reunited with family members in the USA.

Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley helps migrants with travel and other needs July 13 in McAllen, Texas. The Respite Center sees about 800 migrants a day.
Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley helps migrants with travel and other needs July 13 in McAllen, Texas. The Respite Center sees about 800 migrants a day.

Before entering the center, they’re screened for the coronavirus. Those who test positive are taken to area hotels for quarantining and more 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 USA.

The sprawling facility, a former nightclub, accommodates up to 1,200 people, said Sister Norma Pimentel, who oversees the center. Lately, it's been accepting about 800 migrants a day, she said.

Border Patrol officials 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, about 2,000 migrants sleep in tents in the city’s main plaza and surrounding shelters, waiting to enter the USA, Pimentel said. Those numbers – and Mexico’s rising COVID-19 rate – raise concerns, she said.

“There’s going to be a point we won’t be able 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.

Moreno grew up not far from this stretch of wilderness, in Alamo, Texas, 7 miles west of McAllen. He learned Spanish in junior high from Latino friends. His father was a postal worker, and Moreno saw how the steady federal paycheck kept food on the table and helped get him and two siblings through college.

Moreno said he naturally gravitated toward being a Border Patrol agent, a job in which he uses his Spanish daily and that keeps him outdoors and helping people.

Migrant advocates have complained for years that Border Patrol agents abuse asylum seekers, both in the field and in detention facilities, and the accusations 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 agents as abusive toward migrants. 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, 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 its website at: https://www.catholiccharitiesrgv.org/HumanitarianRespiteCenter.shtml.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden immigration: Border Patrol agents struggle with flow of migrants