EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Summer heat used to drastically slow down irregular migration along the Southwest border, but daily migrant encounters remain in the hundreds in places like the El Paso Sector.
Historical Border Patrol data shows migrant apprehensions consistently have dropped – at times by nearly 50 percent – from May to July in all but one year from 2013 to 2020. The El Paso Sector in May recorded 34,638 encounters and agents tell Border Report they are still coming across some 700 migrants per day.
Those migrants have two paths under the U.S. immigration system: A quick return to Mexico under the Title 42 public health order or a comprehensive processing under Title 8, which includes asylum claims. In West Texas and Southern New Mexico, most migrants get expelled.
“The majority is single adults,” said Carlos Rivera, a Border Patrol spokesman. “Family units, yes, are on the rise. But the majority is single adults, and the majority is a demographic that is attempting to get away from us.”
That is because most of the traffic coming over the border wall or across the desert consists of Mexican citizens who, in the words of the agency, are usually “amenable to Title 42.”
The agency recently allowed a Border Report crew to ride along with two of its agents on patrol. The agents came across 23 unauthorized migrants in a few hours’ span.
The encounters included chases through desert brush, vacant lots and a junkyard. A family from Brazil and a Cuban activist turned themselves over to the agents on the banks of the Rio Grande, seeking asylum. One determined, fast-moving unidentified male led agents on a lengthy chase through neighborhoods before being classified as a “got-away.”
Border Report talked to several Mexican migrants. Most said they crossed the border to work, send money home to their families, and eventually go back to their homeland and their loved ones. Some joked they would be back across the border the next day after the Border Patrol apprehended them.
‘As busy as ever’
Border Patrol Assistant Supervisory Agent Carlos Rivera drives along McNutt Drive in Sunland Park, New Mexico. This city of 16,000 people just west of El Paso is one of the busiest migrant corridors in the region.
On a recent morning, residents jogged in peace and a few vehicles moved along smoothly. Then Rivera and his partner spotted four people running down Mount Cristo Rey and turned on the police sirens.
The agents brought the vehicle to a stop at a vacant lot and gave chase. Agent Orlando Marrero cornered two migrants behind a fence and brought another out of the bushes. A conversation ensued as to whether a fourth person was with them.
“Hey, there was four of you. I saw you. Where is the other one?” Marrero asked.
A young man who identified himself as a Mexican citizen tells him there were only three.
“Negative! When I saw you, you were running to this intersection. I saw you. Where is the other one?” the agent asserts.
More Border Patrol agents show up and quickly find the missing migrant behind a rock wall. The agents tell the three men and one woman to surrender cell phones and other property while the questioning continues. The woman and one of the men later admit they’re Hondurans, not Mexicans as they stated earlier.
A Border Patrol bus picks them up along McNutt Drive while the agents rush toward a nearby junkyard where another group jumped a wall and reportedly hid among the vehicles. One by one, the migrants come out of their hiding places; one apparently attempts to flee and is placed in handcuffs.
Business owner Sabino Irigoyen said this is not the first time that migrants try to hide in his property. He expresses mixed feelings about the illegal immigration issue in this majority Hispanic community. He asks that his feelings not be made public for the safety of his family.
Sunland Park residents previously have told Border Report the migrants don’t represent a security threat to them, as they usually just pass through their property to avoid apprehension or may knock to beg for water or emergency food. But they say the smugglers who pick up migrants in vehicles or tempt their children with money in exchange for taking migrants from the border wall to stash houses are a source of great concern to them.
Hearing from the migrants
Earlier, the agents spotted an empty Border Patrol vehicle on the foothills of Mount Cristo Rey. The driver’s side door was open, and this sparked concern. The agents go up and down small hills and ravines until they spot their peer. He has several migrants in custody.
“I didn’t know he was actively on something, so I see a vehicle like that obviously the first thing I’m going to do is find that agent, see if he’s OK if something’s happened to him,” Rivera states.
The agents try to establish nationality and immigration status. Then they ask for cell phones, belts, shoelaces and IDs.
“We are seeing that a lot of these migrants are using cell phones using technology to communicate with the smugglers actively. In prior years, it was based on landmarks. Go to this fast-food restaurant, go here, go there. The pickup vehicle is going to be waiting for you there. Now, it’s actively on social media, WhatsApp or other communications app. ‘Hey, migra is here. Border Patrol is here. It’s too hot,’ or whatever,” Rivera said.
Each migrant’s property is placed in a plastic bag and marked. The migrant gets a tag with a number matching the bag. The bag goes wherever the migrant goes, Rivera said, whether that’s a Border Patrol station, a processing center, a detention center, a jail (in the case of those who have active warrants), or to a port of entry if the migrant is to be expelled.
The group of migrants near Cristo Rey are all from Mexico. Some tell Border Report they are from the state of Veracruz, that they came to work and don’t care for asylum.
“The money we make is not enough. We are coming here to work, not to harm anyone,” said Vicente, one of the migrants. He works in farms in Veracruz and has two daughters ages 6 and 9 for whom he has to provide.
Christian, a travel companion, said economics drove him out of his town, but that he hopes to return with enough dollars to provide a better life for his wife and his daughters aged 6 and 18 months.
“I make 150 pesos ($7.50) per day, that’s not enough,” he said. “They say public school is free in Mexico but that’s not true. You have to pay for uniforms, school supplies and the ‘cooperation’ or they won’t let (your child) go to that school.”
The migrants declined to say if anyone helped them cross the border or if a “guide” (smuggler) showed them around the mountain. Christian said the group knew they would be placed under Title 42 if caught because of their Mexican nationality. That’s why they made a run for the border.
The arresting agents asked the Veracruz residents if this was their first attempted illegal crossing. They said yes, but one joked he’d be back the next day.
“We make those determinations. When I saw they’re amenable to Title 42 it’s because there’s the policies and the agreements with the government of Mexico, which demographics or which nationalities may be returned,” Rivera said. “To my understanding, they are all from Mexico.”
Title 42 is a public health policy that allows quick expulsions to prevent COVID-19 transmission. As of May 31, some 734,028 migrants had been expelled under Title 42 on the Southwest border during fiscal year 2022.
COVID-19 also has changed the way Border Patrol deals with migrant encounters. Questions about health are mandatory and specially equipped mini-buses are used to transport migrants to Border Patrol stations or processing centers.
The days of agents packing migrants into the back of an SUV are gone.
“Obviously, he’s not going to be able to fit six people in his vehicle safely. Then also, the transport vans that we have to have separate air conditioning to the migrants and the agent, that way we prevent that cross contamination,” Rivera said.
Documenting the ‘got-aways’
Irregular migration prompts strong emotions on both sides of the political aisle. Advocates emphasize the number of apprehensions is exaggerated because most people who get expelled under Title 42 attempt to cross the border again.
In its May operational update, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 239,416 encounters, but of those 177,793 were unique individuals. In other words, there were 61,623 repeat attempts.
But those who want immigration laws strictly enforced say the numbers don’t reflect the thousands who come across undetected. News reports in April quoted Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as saying 389,000 migrants who entered the United States in 2021 weren’t caught.
Border Report last week witnessed the search for a migrant who was spotted crossing the border. Agents were always just one step behind him as he dashed through the brush, vacant lots and neighborhoods.
“This particular migrant just broke up from the group and kept running into the neighborhood. This area we’re out right here is not very far from the border barrier. The group that we did apprehend, that we did encounter will be counted as encounters. This would unfortunately be called a got-away,” Rivera said.