Little Evidence of a Border in South-Central Texas

Two kinds of migrants: Those who don’t want to be found, and those who trudge miles to find an agent

By Andrew R. Arthur on August 12, 2021

Four years ago, I wrote “View of the Border from the Rio Grande Valley and Del Rio”, about my travels through the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley and Del Rio Sectors. I described the dogged efforts that federal agents, in coordination with local police, the National Guard, and Texas’ Department of Public Safety (DPS), were making to stop illegal entrants.

The only thing missing on a recent return to Del Rio was the Border Patrol, explaining why there is little evidence of a border there.

Border Patrol at the Southwest border has traditionally been like the Mounties in rural Canada. They plug the enforcement gaps. When you see a list of local important contact numbers (for hospitals, fire, police, and utilities), the local Border Patrol station is at the top of the list. Regardless of the problem, there are more Border Patrol agents there to respond than local cops, and they are always around.

Their readily identifiable white vehicles with the green stripes are usually ubiquitous on the streets and the highways, and usually dot all parts of the border. Not anymore. On Tuesday, I drove from Del Rio to San Antonio — more than 150 miles — and I saw one Border Patrol SUV.

Actually, that’s not exactly true. I drove past the Del Rio and Brackettville Border Patrol Stations and saw tens of them. All parked.

Agents are still working and, if I know Border Patrol, working hard. Only, they weren’t apprehending anybody that I saw, and believe me, I was looking.

Those agents were “apparently” (a word that I will explain below) processing hundreds to thousands of aliens a day, almost all of whom had turned themselves in, knowing they would be released into the United States in short order.

That’s because there are two kinds of illegal migrants: Those who don’t want to be found, and those who trudge miles to turn themselves in.

Drive along the riverbank near the Del Rio port of entry, and you will see streams of the latter sort making their way down the two-mile dirt road to agents under one of the bridges.

Some are bedraggled, but most have freshly changed out of the outfits that they wore to cross the Rio Grande. One woman, who was pulling a suitcase, looked particularly sharp. She had switched into a grey cowlneck sweater after her passage, even though it was 99 degrees out.

Almost all had children, because they (and more importantly, their smugglers) know that a child is a quick ticket to entry.

In June (the last month for which CBP statistics have been released), Border Patrol apprehended more than 50,000 migrant adults and children travelling in “family units” (FMUs). Of those 50,000-plus FMUs, just 8,070 (16 percent) were quickly expelled under extensions to Trump-era orders, issued by the CDC under Title 42 of the U.S. Code to control the spread of Covid. The rest are here indefinitely.

To put it more plainly, some 84 percent of migrants in family units who were apprehended by Border Patrol in June were not expelled under Title 42, despite the fact that DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asserted in March:

Families apprehended at the southwest border are ... currently being expelled under the CDC’s Title 42 authority. Families from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries are expelled to Mexico unless Mexico does not have the capacity to receive the families. Families from countries other than Mexico or the Northern Triangle are expelled by plane to their countries of origin.

The Biden administration may tell you that it could not expel more than 16 percent of family units in June because the Mexican government refused to take any more back. Note, however, that the Mexican government is obligated to take back its own nationals, and there is no reason that DHS could not fly the rest back to their home countries (which are also obligated to accept them), either.

That said, not all the migrants came with children in tow. A few adults were by themselves. You might likely think that they were quickly expelled, as CDC’s Title 42 order requires. Not quite.

Almost 113,400 single adults were apprehended by Border Patrol in June at the Southwest border. Of those, just fewer than 95,000 were expelled under Title 42 — a rate of 83.7 percent. That means that more than 16 percent of all single adults who entered illegally, more than 18,000 aliens, were allowed to stay.

I got to meet three at the bus station in Del Rio. They were Haitian nationals and had just been released from Border Patrol custody. The trio were on their way next to San Antonio, and then to catch a separate bus to New York.

Keep in mind that I was not there looking for migrants who had been released. I was getting a soda from the attached convenience store. Two were brothers, and the third a girlfriend. They told me that they had traveled from Central America to make it to the river.

Something must be going on with Haitian releases, and Cuban ones, too, because almost all the single adults that I saw crossing the river to turn themselves in were from those two countries.

I know that because, as I will explain in a later post, many left their identity documents on the riverbank before walking up the dirt road to where a handful of agents were waiting to begin their processing (a few complained about the walk).

Which brings me to the word “apparently” that I highlighted in the fifth paragraph, above.

Under the Trump administration, CBP was transparent in its apprehension and release policies. This week, no one from either CBP or the Border Patrol wanted to talk to me, ostensibly out of fear that it would get back to Washington.

Mayorkas’ March statements are clearly outdated, but DHS’s website is so opaque on the issue of expulsions and releases as to appear black. The smugglers obviously know, though, so maybe the department could share it with the rest of us. We pay their bills, after all.

The one image that I have in my mind that underscores the dissolution of the Southwest border is of three large truck tires that were discarded on the side of the river road.

Many times a day, agents would drag those tires behind trucks to smooth out the dirt that covers that road. That way, if migrants crossed illegally, agents could see the footprints and figure out how many were travelling and where they were going.

The tires are now discarded because illegal entry is so common — and so apparently officially acquiesced to — that there is no more reason to drag the road. The aliens are in plain sight, as are the smugglers who portage them across the river. The smugglers have no fear of apprehension, let alone sanction, so they glare at you indignantly when you look their way. It’s their river, and they do what they want.

That brings up the question of what happens to those aliens after they are “apprehended”. Are they processed for expedited removal? How long are they held? Are they at least tested for Covid before they are released at the bus station? And who pays for that trip to San Antonio?

I have no idea, and again, no one was talking.

There is a 90,000-square foot temporary processing facility adjacent to the Border Patrol Station in Eagle Pass, about an hour up the road from Del Rio, to service the sector. What goes on there? I was told that I could talk to the CBP public affairs officer about it, but that would take a few days, maybe a week. I doubt I would have learned anything, or anything that I had not already been told on the streets.

What I was told on the streets is that the aliens are simply kept there long enough to be processed and taken to the bus station for the ride north. Based on my observations at the station (I drink a lot of soda), that is almost definitely true. At one point, the parking lot was so packed with people holding government documents, waiting for transport, that it was tough to find a parking spot.

The same scene was repeated at San Antonio International Airport. Airline gates were full of travelers who were carrying DHS-issued “Notices to Report”, along with tickets to major hubs. Most could not understand the boarding announcements (which are exclusively in English, for now), and so other passengers (including me) were attempting to guide them to the right spots.

Again, “apparently”, the agents were not in the field because they were too busy caring for and processing those aliens. It’s either the most common rumor or worst-kept secret in south-central Texas, because everyone I spoke to (including desk clerks and restaurant patrons) told me that.

Which brings me to the other group of migrants at that border, the ones who don’t want to be caught. Once more, the smugglers are “apparently” aware of CBP’s unwritten, unspoken-about release policies because not everyone was simply making the trek to the riverbank in Del Rio for processing and a bus ticket.

Shelby Park in Eagle Pass and the adjacent Eagle Pass Municipal Golf Course are two hotspots for them. Those facilities sit along the Rio Grande directly across from the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, but any spot along the river with fordable banks on either side are acceptable crossing points for those trying to get away. Once in the United States, migrants start their trek — often on foot — to awaiting smugglers.

Brackettville, which sits about 15 miles from the closest river crossings, is one spot where such rendezvous have taken place. Much of the surrounding area is ranchland, and the scrub bushes that dot the land provide excellent cover.

The town’s popularity as a smuggling meet-up has been diminished, however, by the increased presence of Texas DPS, and in particular state troopers, in the area. Their readily identifiable black Ford Explorers with white hoods have replaced Border Patrol’s green-striped vehicles on the border landscape.

They are there as part of “Operation Lone Star”, an initiative announced by Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) on March 6. Through Lone Star, DPS and the Texas National Guard are “deploy[ing] air, ground, marine, and tactical border security assets to high threat areas to deny Mexican Cartels and other smugglers the ability to move drugs and people into Texas.” The area is definitely “high threat”.

Abbott pulled no punches in explaining why he needed to take the extraordinary step of protecting the border — which is supposed to be Border Patrol’s job, after all: “The crisis at our southern border continues to escalate because of Biden Administration policies that refuse to secure the border and invite illegal immigration”. It is difficult to argue with him, especially if you have been there.

Due to the heavy trooper presence, the towns of Uvalde and La Pryor are replacing Brackettville as migrant and drug pick-up spots. Both are miles further into the interior and, as one local official told me, the operation “must be a success. Migrants and smugglers were walking for two to three days in the past and are now walking two to three weeks.”

They come well provisioned, as camera footage shows them with full backpacks for the journey. If you are going to walk 50 miles in south Texas in the summer, you will need snacks and a lot of water.

Uvalde’s popularity for smugglers is also enhanced by a nearby Union Pacific railroad line, which runs east to San Antonio and beyond. Smugglers tell migrants to hop the rail cars to head out of the area.

One, a female Mexican national, lost her arm to the wheels of a train in Del Rio in late June when she lost her balance trying to jump onto a moving car. Earlier that month, another female suffered what were described as “severe injuries to her foot” near Laredo when she attempted the same maneuver.

The tracks near Uvalde are isolated and surrounded by thick brush. That’s great for smugglers, but it would not be surprising if other migrants suffered grievous injuries or were killed there attempting to board trains. Nor would it be a surprise if their bodies weren’t found for a while, if ever.

Speaking of smugglers, there has been an increase in the number of stolen vehicles that have been located in the area. Many of the drivers are young (at least one was 17), and from Austin and San Antonio. They are lured by the promise of quick money (up to $1,000 per migrant) and are given cars and trucks that have been stolen, and roughly modified by having their back seats removed to hold illegal cargo.

Such smuggling has also led to an increase in high-speed chases, rollovers, and crashes in the area, as at least one local outlet has reported. Death tolls there are mounting, as inexperienced drivers manning poorly maintained vehicles attempt to elude state and local authorities.

The situation in the Del Rio Sector is bad and getting worse. Four years ago, there was illegal migration there, but Border Patrol was more than up to the effort, with some assistance from state and local cops and the National Guard. Now, state and local cops are providing what enforcement there is, as Border Patrol agents are “apparently” stuck processing aliens and releasing them into the United States. There may be a border on the map, but there’s little evidence of one in reality.