It’s one thing to stand alongside the Rio Grande or talk to others who have made it across. It’s another to dive in yourself. Fusion’s Jorge Ramos did just that in order to better understand what so many Central American migrants face as they flee across the border.
Ramos’ experience wasn’t exactly the same as that of the migrants, who reach the river after weeks of grueling travel. As Border Patrol agents supervised, he swam from the Texas side to the Mexican one and back, taking care not to violate a U.S.-Mexico treaty by touching actual land on the Mexican banks. It was also daytime, and many migrants favor the cover of night. But the water was dangerously real, with undercurrents that pushed Ramos at least 200 yards off of his initial line across.
The U.S. side is littered with clothing, plastic bags that protected money and documents, and other scraps discarded after the swim by migrants whose journey is far from over. Most will have to walk miles across the hellish desert to get to a border town. Border Patrol agents like Jose Monserrate wait for them along the way – while also watching for other threats.
“We’re not scared of immigrants,” Monserrate said. “Basically the drug cartels, they hide in here – just like we hide waiting for them, they hide in here. Our lives are in danger.”
The agency’s forces reflect the risk. More than 21,000 agents receive the best training and equipment, employing everything from boats to ATVs to helicopters to horses. One agent described the “intimidation factor” they hope to maximize by using horses, especially when manpower is stretched thin. It doesn’t hurt that they are quieter than motorized options, either.
Spending a day with the Border Patrol was illuminating, but more came out after dark – and after hours. At a meeting by the river a few miles from downtown Laredo, a couple of agents told us we stood in a giant security hole, one that can’t be filled without more resources.
“There are no Border Patrol agents in this area,” said Hector Garza, a member of the local union. “And this is what concerns us. Because we know that the children and the family units are crossing close to Laredo, but we know that the criminals, the dangerous criminals and dangerous drugs are entering in this area.”
The scramble for resources is a common theme. When migrants are picked up by Border Patrol, they’re first taken to processing centers that have faced severe overcrowding since the surge started in 2011. It’s difficult to know how bad things are for the children inside, because the Department of Homeland Security bars journalists from seeing them. At the door of a facility in Laredo, a guard shooed Ramos and his crew away.
Eventually, migrants enter the legal system. Once they’ve made it out of processing and into the limbo before their mandated hearing, they must prepare to plead their case to avoid being sent back, even as lawmakers push to increase and speed up deportations. Many will face an immigration judge without an attorney. We spoke to Nelly Vielma, an attorney for a family from Honduras and other migrants.
“Well, I think that they have very credible fear of going back to Honduras,” Vielma said. “If they go back they face – well, the girls will be raped because [gang members] already tried it. They’re gonna make their point and they’ll be subjected to sexual assault and the threat of killing them. They already made that threat.”
Many migrants see deportation as a death sentence. Yet it is hard to imagine such a decision being handed out to thousands seeking a safe haven. As the crisis drags on, little is being done in Central America or D.C to address its underlying causes. For now, the river of refugees rages on.