PRESIDIO COUNTY — In the span of just two days last week — from Friday morning until Saturday evening — local and federal law enforcement authorities stopped and captured at least 61 Central American migrants who were journeying northwards after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Three migrants, including one minor, also died while attempting the hot, hazardous journey into the United States through Presidio County.
Most of the arrests happened in two separate incidents along U.S. Highway 67 south of Marfa — one involving migrants on foot and another involving migrants hidden inside an RV.
A total of 62 migrants were initially traveling in those two groups, but one of the migrants traveling on foot died while attempting to navigate Presidio County’s rugged terrain. Authorities have not yet released more information on that deceased migrant, including their gender, age or cause of death.
Then, on Monday, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office said in social media that two migrants — a mother and 14-year-old son — had been found dead from exposure by Mexican authorities in a third incident.
In that case, a family from Guatemala “believed they had all made it to the United States when in fact they had only crossed a creek within Mexico,” the sheriff’s office stated. The family got lost and stranded near Candelaria.
The first incident happened at around 11 a.m. on Friday, when a deputy with the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office stopped a northbound vehicle on a remote stretch of U.S. 67. The vehicle was towing an RV without license plates, the sheriff’s office stated on social media.
Authorities stopped the vehicle and searched it, ultimately finding 50 undocumented migrants. Although initial reports said there were 51 migrants, U.S. Customs and Border Protection later gave that number as 50.
Outside of migrant families, who sometimes present themselves in large groups to federal agents at the border, it’s the biggest number of undocumented immigrants that the Big Bend Sector of Border Patrol has apprehended in recent years, an agency spokesman said on Friday. One of the last high profile local incidents, in Marfa in September 2019, arrested just around 10 migrants.
The detained migrants on Friday came from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, and allegedly admitted to entering the United States unlawfully, the sheriff’s office stated. All the migrants were taken into custody alive, according to Border Patrol.
In a social media post, Border Patrol said the driver was also arrested and is facing charges for human smuggling. The Presidio County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the incident, but documents obtained through an open-records request gave the alleged driver as Dario Carrasco, a 39-year-old resident of Presidio.
Friday’s incident reportedly happened roughly 20 miles south of Marfa — but by early afternoon, the RV had been cleared and there were no signs of the traffic stop.
The Border Patrol checkpoint south of Marfa was closed, and several Border Patrol vehicles were seen driving north from where the incident occured. The immigration agency is now in charge of the case, the sheriff’s office stated.
In an interview Friday afternoon, a Border Patrol spokesperson said that — due to coronavirus policy changes — all of the migrants would be processed for “immediate deportation.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in May gave federal officials sweeping authority to prohibit anyone from entering the United States if their entry poses a “serious danger” of spreading a communicable disease like COVID-19.
“We don’t know where these people have been at all,” the Border Patrol spokesperson said on Friday. “We’re trying desperately to avoid holding people for an extended period of time.” In the event that any migrants were coronavirus positive, Border Patrol wanted to avoid the possibility of infections among agents or other residents, he said.
The agency is still investigating other aspects of the case — including whether the RV crossed the border with migrants or whether the migrants were picked up elsewhere in the United States.
“If they did make it across the border” in the RV, a Border Patrol spokesperson said of the migrants, “they were probably paying their life’s savings to do so.”
Another incident occurred on Saturday morning, after local authorities received a 911 call from the Candelaria area. An 18-year-old male migrant from Guatemala had been traveling with his mother and 14-year-old sibling, but his mother was “unresponsive” and his sibling was lost “somewhere in the brush,” according to the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office, which first responded to the incident.
When deputies arrived in Candelaria, locals were already helping to find the family. Deputies tried to help the man, asking him where he’d lost his mother and sibling. But “unfortunately,” the sheriff’s office stated on social media, “he pointed to the Mexico side of the river.”
Authorities ultimately determined that the family had likely gotten lost in Mexico and that the 18-year-old migrant had only “entered the United States while looking for help.” Authorities looked for his missing family members by land and air, but they couldn’t find them and “there was no sign of them in the United States.”
Then, on Monday, Mexican authorities told U.S. officials that they’d found the two migrants dead, likely from exposure. Temperatures on the border climbed into the 100s that day.
“The ‘Rio Grande’ river in the Presidio County area is almost nonexistent,” the sheriff’s office stated, “which is confusing and can easily be mistaken for a wash or creek.”
At press time, it was unclear what had happened to the 18-year-old family member — though as an undocumented migrant, he was likely also processed for deportation if authorities took custody of him in the United States.
Then, on Saturday evening, tragedy struck again after deputies with the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office encountered three more migrants while out on patrol.
The migrants were traveling on foot along Highway 67 and were “seeking help,” according to a social media post from the sheriff’s office.
After interviewing the migrants, authorities learned that nine other members of the group were lost on Cibolo Creek Ranch. But one of those nine other migrants had “passed away in the hills,” the sheriff’s office stated. Authorities were able to “find and recover” the body but have not yet released any more information.
The 11 surviving migrants — all of them from the state of Chiapas in Mexico — were taken into custody, the sheriff’s office stated. Authorities contacted the Mexican Consulate, so that officials there could contact the family of the deceased. That case was also handed over to Border Patrol.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not yet released their numbers of “border encounters” between migrants and agents in August 2020. Figures for the Big Bend Sector, which do not give by-month statistics, show a 42% drop in undocumented migration so far this year compared to last.
But even with the threat of coronavirus, the number of apprehended migrants across the southern border this year has been about average. Authorities encountered around 40,746 migrants along the border this July, compared to 40,149 in July 2018.
In terms of sheer numbers, 2019 was an outlier, with more than 81,000 encounters with migrants in July alone. A Border Patrol spokesperson pegged the drop-off in numbers to a change in the demographics of migrants, from family units from Central America in 2019 to “mostly single individuals from Mexico” who were “looking for jobs” this year.
The U.S.-Mexico border has been largely closed for months, and the Trump administration has adopted a controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy for migrants seeking asylum. But even still, thousands of migrants are attempting the perilous and illegal journey into the United States each month.
“There seems to be a sense of increased desperation,” the spokesperson said on Monday. “People in desperate situations do desperate things. They put their lives at risk.” He cited not only the coronavirus pandemic but also a “lack of jobs” and “lack of opportunity” in Mexico and beyond.
The Trump administration has spent the past few years cracking down on undocumented migrants in an effort to encourage immigrants to apply for status “the right way,” federal authorities said last year. But as the border has tightened — first due to changing immigration policies, and now due to coronavirus — migrants are trying to bypass immigration officials, according to the Border Patrol spokesperson.
“The intent now is not to basically cross and turn themselves in,” he said. “The intent is to try to evade, so that they can enter.”