MCALLEN, Texas – I was in Southern Texas covering the immigration crisis and separation of families for nearly a day when I got word that I had secured a Border Patrol ride-along.
“The Rio Grande sector accounts for about 40% of the apprehensions in the United States,” a Border Patrol agent named Chris Seiler told me as we drove away from the station a few days later. “The McAllen station specifically is about 20% of the entire nation, and we catch about 300 individuals a day just in this 50-mile span of border.”
For nearly five hours last Monday morning, I followed Seiler and another agent, Rene Quintanilla, around as they patrolled on and around the Rio Grande, which separates the US and Mexico.
Here’s what happened:
Seiler and Quintanilla first took me on a boat where I met a few more agents.
For a couple of hours, we drove up and down the Rio Grande, periodically disembarking to walk along the trails. The agents said the boats, which are loud and fast, act as a deterrent against illegal crossings.
Cartels and smuggling organisations often have spotters posted along the river to make sure the coast is clear before they send people across.
Sometimes spotters even post up in abandoned houses or other structures like the one seen below.
While some people try to walk or swim across, most people take boats or rafts across — we saw multiple deflated rafts on the US shore from previous crossings.
I asked Quintanilla why some asylum-seekers crossed illegally, and he said that while every case varied, some were forced to cross illegally by smugglers and cartels.
You can read more about that here.
The agents would often look for tracks on the trail to decipher if and when people had crossed over:
We next got off at a trail along a large field of sugarcane.
And we found more deflated rafts at the trailhead.
In the short video below, another agent, George Syer, told me about the difficulties that sugarcane poses.
The agents said one difficulty of their job was switching back and forth between a humanitarian mission and self-defence.
Some Border Patrol agents have been accused of mistreating migrants and using excessive force. Agents who follow the rules still encounter dangers and difficulties on the job, which takes a toll on them.
Agents are killed, shot at, regularly find dead bodies, and experience a lot of trauma.
Syer even said it was not uncommon for those crossing illegally to throw a child overboard when being pursued so that the agents go for the child first.
Quintanilla also said that he (and other agents) did a lot of outreach work with local schools and the low-income housing areas known as colonias and that several students he had spoken with later credited him with turning their lives around.
The agents later drove me to a run-down town called Los Ebanos, where many unauthorised immigrants hide out in abandoned houses. There were also many stray dogs walking around that Quintanilla said were sometimes used to tell whether someone else was in the area.
We last drove around under the bridges at the main port of entry in McAllen. Despite their sector being one of the most heavily crossed in the US, the agents didn’t apprehend anyone, calling it a slow morning.
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