VAN HORN, Texas — In a part of the United States that is so remote it’s where rockets like the one that carried Jeff Bezos to space are launched, men dressed in camouflage sneak across the border with the hope of evading authorities.
While southeast Texas is the epicenter of the southern border’s illegal migration crisis, west Texas faces a growing problem that is unlike those in other parts of the border. In the Border Patrol’s Big Bend region of West Texas, which stretches from Del Rio to El Paso, groups of men cross day and night and then spend up to a week trekking through the mountains and desert to avoid detection and meet up with drivers waiting on the highway.
Unlike the hundreds of thousands of families who crossed in the Rio Grande Valley this past year with the goal of surrendering to agents and being released into the country, the men coming over in West Texas are trying not to get caught. They wear camouflage and sometimes attach pieces of carpet to the bottom of their shoes to avoid leaving behind tracks.© Provided by Washington ExaminerThe bottoms of the migrants’ hiking boots and sneakers are covered in pieces of carpet to avoid leaving foot tracks in the desert sand. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
Compared to southeastern Texas, the western side is several hundred miles further away for migrants coming from south of Mexico, but the upside is that it is the only area of the border without even one mile of a wall. All other regions have varying amounts of 18- to 30-foot-tall steel border fencing, but nowhere along the 517 miles of the Big Bend region does a border wall prevent people from getting across.
“Our area varies a little bit different from the Del Rio Sector because instead of them just crossing over within minutes, it takes days, and there’s specific areas that they can cross,” said Lt. Elizabeth Carter, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety officers working with Border Patrol in West Texas. “They’re literally risking their lives to cross illegally in the first place and then to make that travel — anywhere from five to six days.”
Within the region’s western side, Border Patrol agents based out of the towns of Van Horn, Texas, and Sierra Blanca, Texas, have encountered the large majority of illegal immigrants in recent months. The apprehensions are sometimes no more than a matter of miles from the site of the launch of the rocket that carried the Blue Origin founder to space in July.
Sgt. Jimmy Morris, a tactical flight officer for Texas DPS, is assigned to a helicopter that surveils thousands of square miles surrounding nearby Alpine, Texas. He assists Border Patrol agents and DPS officers as they search for groups that have crossed and been detected. Morris said the numbers of migrants coming through near Van Horn and Sierra Blanca “really picked up” at the end of 2020 and into January.
“Out of 100, we’re lucky if we catch 15 of them,” Morris said before a helicopter patrol of the area Thursday.
Jeffrey Hammes, a Border Patrol agent who is the president of the National Border Patrol Council’s Big Bend union chapter, estimated 95% of those caught are men or 16- and 17-year-old boys. Most were from Guatemala and came for economic reasons. They sought to avoid getting caught because, under emergency pandemic public policies, they will be transported back to Mexico or to Guatemala. The number of convicted criminals or gang members among the men is low, Hammes said.© Provided by Washington ExaminerTexas Department of Public Safety Tactical Flight Officer Jimmy Morris looks at the manmade trails on the ground for new footprints from a group of migrants who have illegally crossed the border in West Texas. (Anna Giaritelli / Washington Examiner)
The cartels that the migrants have paid to get them into the U.S. will often lead them across the border and then abandon them. The border here runs west-east. Mountain ranges stretch all along the U.S. side of the border, forcing groups to take longer routes to avoid the major impasses.© Provided by Washington ExaminerMigrants who come across the U.S.-Mexico border in West Texas must navigate through the mountains and deserts in the region. (Anna Giaritelli / Washington Examiner)
Once across the border, the groups are told to walk to Highway 90 or Interstate 10, where drivers will pick them up in several days. The migrants will take off their camouflaged clothing and backpacks and leave them behind in the bushes near the road to avoid drawing suspicion if pulled over by police. Groups that agents do catch often break up into small groups and try to outrun the police.
“They would cross in these very large groups of 50 to 60 and then split up into three or four smaller groups just to kind of stretch our manpower,” said Hammes.
The phenomenon of the camouflaged men began around 2014, Hammes said. In that time, it has ebbed and flowed, but the levels that agents are seeing now, specifically near the Blue Origin launch site, are unprecedented. In October, 3,604 people were apprehended in all of West Texas, most of which here near Van Horn. The 3,604 figure is as many as were being apprehended in some 12-month periods not too long ago.© Provided by Washington ExaminerOfficials are worried about another migrant surge. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
Hammes is concerned that the corporation-like criminal organizations that make billions annually smuggling people into the U.S. could take advantage of Big Bend and is convinced they have already begun doing so. West Texas is “overlooked” because, even though it has seen a huge increase in apprehensions, they pale in comparison to other sectors with hundreds of thousands.
The surge of adult men through here is especially of concern to Hammes, given that regions of the border that have always been slow and quiet have become the busiest in the nation since President Joe Biden took office. From Nov. 5 through Nov. 11, the Del Rio, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona, regions saw the second- and third-most illegal immigrants encountered nationwide after the Rio Grande Valley in southeast Texas, according to data shared by Rep, Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat.
Hammes is worried that a situation such as the one that took place in September in Del Rio, when 30,000 Haitian migrants rushed across the border in a matter of days, could happen in Big Bend and that there would be far too few agents, transport vehicles, supplies, buildings, and food to accommodate those they are able to apprehend.© Provided by Washington ExaminerA single Border Patrol agent searches in the brush not far from his parked vehicle, looking for migrants seen walking near Van Horn, Texas. (Anna Giaritelli / Washington Examiner)
“If we were to get 5% of what they got in Del Rio underneath that bridge, that would shut us down. So are we next where all the cartels are going to realize, ‘Hey, let’s push everyone through Big Bend,’” said Hammes. “The potential is there for a really bad situation to come down on our sector if we were to get even a portion of the traffic that our neighboring sectors are seeing.”
Border Patrol agents in Big Bend have been pulled away from their normal jobs and sent to work in other busy areas, including Del Rio and Yuma. But unlike places such as the Rio Grande Valley, which has more than 3,000 agents working across its 19 counties of responsibility, Big Bend’s 77 counties have less than one-quarter of the RGV personnel. Big Bend also cut half of its personnel since 2009, when Hammes started as an agent.
Back then, the agents from the Van Horn and Sierra Blanca stations worked closer to the actual border not 20 to 100 miles away from it. They had the manpower to do so, even if it meant hourlong transports for people being taken to the station for processing. Now, the region uses two stations as “centralized processing centers,” meaning that anyone who is apprehended must be transported to whichever processing center is closer. It allows agents to play defense instead of offense.
The Texas Department of Public Safety has pitched in its own personnel since late spring, sending officers from the region down to the border to work the highways and interstates where smugglers on the U.S. side are assigned to pick up migrants who make it through the brush on their dayslong journey. The Texas DPS and Border Patrol’s sister component, Air and Marine Operations, use helicopters to find and track groups. Autonomous towers also alert Border Patrol to suspicious activity that agents in the field can follow up on.© Provided by Washington ExaminerGroups travel in camo and then remove the gear to avoid suspicion. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
The adults who are caught are taken to either the processing center in Alpine and returned to Mexico through the Presidio, Texas, port of entry or to the Sierra Blanca station and pushed back through the El Paso port of entry.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency that oversees the Border Patrol, declined to make anyone available for an interview.