MCALLEN, Texas - U.S. Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announced she is traveling to the southern border to assess how a “surge” of resources is handling a steep and prolonged increase in the number of immigrants caught illegally crossing the border.
Prior to this announcement, Channel 2 Investigates traveled to a portion of the border south of McAllen for a ride-along with Border Patrol agents.
KPRC rode with Border Patrol Agent Carlos Ruiz, and within 10 minutes of driving onto a dirt road that parallels the Rio Grande, we came across a group of 24 migrants who had just made it over the border. None tried to run or hide when they saw a Border Patrol SUV approaching.
“They actively look for us,” Ruiz said.
“They’re trying? They want to get caught?” asked Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“Yes, they want to get caught,” Ruiz said.
The group was comprised mostly of families and unaccompanied teens from what the government calls the “Northern Triangle” -- El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In the group there were also three men from Sri Lanka.
“They got lost in (the brush) and they start grouping together,” Ruiz said while explaining how all the people in this group may not have crossed the river together.
Ruiz speaks four languages but needed to use Google Translate on his personal cellphone to try to talk to the men from Sri Lanka. He was eventually able to piece together that the men initially flew to Colombia and then started moving north until they hit they United States.
“They fly to the nearest country where they can get a visa and then they start moving up,” Ruiz said.
No one in the group said they paid smugglers to help them across the border, something Ruiz doubts.
“These areas on the other side of the river belong to the cartels, so nobody crosses without paying,” Ruiz said.
As Ruiz was talking with the group of immigrants, a Border Patrol supervisor pulled up to let him know, “There's several more groups coming right now.”
Ruiz and the supervisor don’t have the capacity to transport everyone in their SUVs. After handing out bottles of water to each person, they instructed the immigrants to keep walking down the road until they saw more Border Patrol agents who were already working on transporting different groups of immigrants caught crossing the border around the same time.
“We cannot keep up. This doesn't stop,” Ruiz said.
“So, it's not unusual to see that many people?” asked Arnold.
“No, not anymore,” Ruiz said.
In keeping with that statement, five minutes after leaving that group, we saw another group of 28 immigrants walking down the road. Everyone we spoke with said they were fleeing violence, gangs, poverty, a lack of jobs and a lack of quality education for their children in their home countries. One 17-year-old girl from El Salvador who was traveling without her parents said she left home because she feared being kidnapped by a local gang that was constantly harassing her family.
A man from Honduras who sneaked across the border with his 3-month-old son said he lost his business to extortion. He said his wife became ill in Mexico and had to stay behind. Everyone in the group said they were trying to reach family or friends already in the United States.
Ruiz pointed out Border Patrol was starting to see more fathers coming across with children than in the past.
“Now it has become the norm that the father brings the child,” Ruiz said.
“What do you think has changed?” asked Arnold.
“They know this is a, since they have a child with them, that they most likely will be released with a 'notice to appear' and a future court date,” Ruiz said. “If they come here as a single adult their chances of staying in are slim.”
From here, Ruiz took us to a spot on the river popular with human smugglers.
“You don't see them, but they see us. You're being watched right now,” Ruiz said.
He wasn't exaggerating. Within a few minutes after we walked to the river bank, men started peeking out through trees. They covered their faces with their shirts when they saw our camera.
“As you can see they're getting ready for the next load,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said our presence was hampering their business. Something one of the men demonstrated by trying to wave Ruiz away.
“He literally just told you to go away,” Arnold said.
“Yes,” Ruiz said.
A short time later, the men start coming down the river bank and yelling at us. One even brought out a camera and started recording us and Ruiz.
“So he wants to show this footage to his bosses?” asked Arnold.
“Yes, most likely,” Ruiz said. “If I stay here they might hurt the people up there. So I'd rather have them cross and they be safe than me stand here.”
“To spite you they'll hurt them on the Mexican side?” asked Arnold.
“Yes,” Ruiz said.
“And they'll make sure you know?” asked Arnold.
“Yes, to make sure I get out of here,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said if he does try to stop a crossing as it's happening, the smugglers will many times flip their rafts over and dump the immigrants in the river.
“I do not want that. That is the last thing I want them to do,” Ruiz said.
“Because they may drown,” said Arnold.
“Exactly,” said Ruiz. “(The smugglers) don't see them as human beings, they see them as a commodity.”
“All right then, let's go because I don't want to be responsible for that,” Arnold said.
However, as we were leaving, a man Ruiz said was the boss of this crew decided to show off.
“They're going to cross a little farther down,” Ruiz said.
The smugglers didn’t bring over a group, instead it was an El Salvadoran mother and infant daughter. As one man who kept his face covered paddled the pair across on a raft, a second man in the raft continually waved at Ruiz as a warning to stay back.
Mother and daughter were quickly off-loaded and the men went back across the river. After walking the pair up the river bank and out of the underbrush, we saw four more immigrants standing next to Ruiz’s Border Patrol SUV -- two from Guatemala and two from Nicaragua.
Ruiz again gives everyone a bottle of water and tells them to keep walking down the road until they see other Border Patrol agents. We then asked Ruiz about that river crossing.
“People are going to see that video and ask, ‘Why didn't you go down there and arrest those two?’" Arnold said.
“Many reasons. One of them is I didn't want them to hurt the mom and daughter. The mother and child first of all,” Ruiz said.
“Would they have?” asked Arnold.
“Yes, if they saw they were in danger, that I might have apprehended them, that I might take away their raft, they would have thrown them in the river,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said the other reason was that back-up was not close, and was tied up with handling dozens of other immigrants caught crossing the border, and he worried we would be hurt if a confrontation turned violent.
“These are very bad people, they are smugglers and they work for the cartels,” Ruiz said.
We ended our ride-along on a levee road where all the immigrants we saw were told to keep walking after first being encountered by Border Patrol. Several Border Patrol agents, brought from other sections of the border, were interviewing the immigrants and collecting personal belongings before everyone was put on a bus and sent to a detention center. In less than three hours, we saw roughly 100 immigrants caught illegally crossing the border, and that was just in this area of the border.
Many told us they had no money and felt this was the only way to make into the United States to try to find a job and provide an education for their children.
“We’re very poor, we have no television, we have no way of watching the news, so this is the only way,” an El Salvadoran woman said.
Recently, the federal government announced it was temporarily reassigning 750 agents -- with the possibility of increasing that number up to 2,000 -- to sectors along the southern border dealing with the largest influx of families and unaccompanied children. The Department of Homeland Security announced it was also expanding Migrant Protection Protocols, which allows our government to send certain non-Mexican migrants caught illegally crossing the border back to Mexico while their asylum cases are decided. This last effort was meant to address a lack of detention space along the southern border, which fuels results in migrants being released into the U.S. while they wait to hear whether their asylum claims will be granted.
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