In The Vast Big Bend, There’s An Increase In Migrants Crossing The Border. Here’s Why.

By Carlos Morales

It’s approaching midday, and Border Patrol agent Derek Boyle is driving along the snaking Rio Grande. On either side of the river: The seemingly-endless Chihuahuan desert. No houses. No buildings. 

“And so when you’re talking about vast lands, if you look out as far as you can see, we patrol out that way,” says Doyle as he motions toward craggy mountains rising from the West Texas horizon.

Boyle’s the Agent in Charge of the Presidio Station, which is part of Customs and Border Protection’s Big Bend Sector (the largest geographic sector along the southwest border). His station runs along about 100 miles of the sector’s 517-mile range on the Texas-Mexico border. In between towns, miles and miles of rugged desert stretch into the distance.

Boyle’s a 20-year veteran of the agency, but recently moved to Presidio. He parks near the river’s edge, grabs his walkie talkie and heads out into the 94-degree heat.

Here — about six miles outside of Presidio, Texas — it’s quiet. But the chatter of cicadas fills the spaces between mesquite thickets and tall grass. Along this corner of the Rio Grande, the river is just a sliver of flowing water, about 4 to 5 feet wide. 

About six miles outside of Presidio, the Rio Grande is reduced to a sliver about 5 feet across. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

“So that’s the Rio Grande River right there,” says Boyle. “It’s even thinner as you go down either right or left of our location right now,” says Boyle. 

Before long, he comes across the signs people have crossed here: sandy and worn out clothes, empty water bottles and food that’s been left behind.

“Like even that (clothing) sitting there, was it put there because it fell off or something? Or did they put that there as a marker to mark the way?”

The Big Bend is difficult, unforgiving terrain, which is what makes the sudden bump in apprehension numbers stand out.

In May, Boyle says, the Presidio Station saw the sector’s largest increase in apprehensions breaking daily, weekly and monthly records

“And we’ve almost doubled the previous high number of migrant apprehensions ever in the station,” says Boyle. “Every apprehension we make now is a new record.”

While the increase in the Big Bend Sector is significant, the number of apprehensions here — which includes migrants surrendering to immigration officials at the border — still pales in comparison to the numbers seen in other areas along the border like El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.

But for a rural and remote Border Patrol station with strained resources, any uptick is a reason for concern, says Boyle.

Most of the migrants coming through the Presidio station, he says, are families from Central America. But crossings in remote parts of Boyle’s sector aren’t the only influx in the area. At the same time, hundreds more people are waiting fifteen minutes just across the border in the town of Ojinaga, Chihuahua. There, migrants — mainly Cubans — are staying put in hotels and apartments until it’s their turn to make an asylum claim.

“La Frontera Más Tranquila”

In Ojinaga off a nondescript drag lined with restaurants, car washes and shops, a group of migrants from Cuba are waiting it out at a hotel. They’re talking about their home country and why they decided to leave.

“In Cuba, there’s no freedom of expression. There’s nothing,” says a man from Havana. “If you don’t agree with the government, they step on you!” 

The man doesn’t give his name because he’s worried it might affect his asylum claim. He says, to get to Ojinaga, his family of 4 — a wife, his son, and nephew — spent $15,000 dollars. Others here, are spending thousands too. For flights, taxis, buses, hotels and smugglers.

But why this dusty pocket of the border? 

In Ojinaga, locals line the street to see Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In this quiet border town, hundreds of migrants are waiting out for their turn to approach the port in Presidio. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

The man from Havana, who’s been in Ojinaga for a handful of months now, says a friend who crossed through this area told him it was safer than in big cities, like Ciudad Juárez across from El Paso.

“When I was leaving Mexico City, I reached out to a friend that was here and already crossed. He told me, ‘come over here (to Ojinaga) don’t go over there, this is the calmest part of the border, there’s no problem here, you don’t get harassed, they don’t take away your money, and they don’t assault you.’” 

That’s one reason more and more migrants say they are making the difficult trek to rural border outposts. El Paso-based immigration lawyer Taylor Levy says, in bigger Mexican cities, migrants waiting out their asylum claims are being targeted.

“In Juárez in particular, you can see the cartel hangs out,” says Levy, who’s heard this from claim repeatedly from her clients. “They have lookouts and scouts that hang out on the base of the bridges and will target people directly after they are turned away when they try and seek asylum, before they can even get their name on the list.”

The list Levy is referring to is related to “metering.” This Trump Administration policy has been practiced since last year and caps the daily number of migrants that can approach ports of entry to claim asylum. Levy says migrants, especially those with children, would rather try to illegally cross in areas outside of the ports than wait in dangerous Mexican cities. 

A recent government analysis from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) backed up this claim.

“While the stated intentions behind metering may be reasonable, the practice may have unintended consequences. For instance, OIG saw evidence that limiting the volume of asylum-seekers entering at ports of entry leads some aliens who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally.”

Some immigrant rights groups believe the practice of metering could now be pushing migrants into more remote areas of the border, like Presidio.

“It’s these policies of the administration that are pushing people into these dangerous crossing points,” says Levy. 

What’s more, from Mexico City — a major stop along the journey north — it’s faster to get to Ojinaga than Ciudad Juárez. So for groups heading to the United States, a faster route has appeal.

Migrants from Cuba are waiting out their time in Ojinaga by waiting in hotels and apartments. They say only five migrants are able to approach the Presidio port each day to claim asylum. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

And for those that don’t cross the river here, but wait to approach the port of entry in Presidio, they say they hope smaller towns with fewer migrants means less time waiting. Right now migrants in Ojinaga say only 5 people are allowed to approach the Presidio port each day.

“We’re going to keep living until it’s our turn to cross over to the United States,” says the man from Havana. 

Back in Presidio, Agent in Charge Derek Boyle says he believes the area’s lack of violence is becoming an easy sell for smugglers capitalizing on hopeful migrants.

“We do not have the violence here that you will see down in the Rio Grande Valley. We do not have the violence you’ll see in other places in terms of the Mexican side of the border.”

If the region becomes marketed more, Boyle says large migrant groups will continue to come through rural areas like his.

“It goes to show the scope of the crisis itself,” says Boyle. “There is nobody that is impugned to feeling the effects of this crisis.” 

Boyle says since numbers started increasing, his staff and resources have been strained. He says thinks he needs at least 50 more agents to help out. And just last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was deploying 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border, but it’s not likely they’ll end up in the Big Bend. 

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