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Human Smugglers Bypass Border Patrol, Bedeviling Sheriffs And Ranchers In South Texas

Undocumented migrants trekking on foot and packed into vehicles are heading north from the southern border in greater numbers. Some are dying along the way, and Border Patrol agents are frustrated.

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Zapata County Sheriff Raymundo Del Bosque says they used to have one car chase and bailout of unauthorized immigrants a week; now they have one a day. // NPR, John Burnett

When immigration policy changes in Washington, D.C., it's felt immediately on the Jones Ranch, located an hour's drive north of the Rio Grande in South Texas.

Whit Jones III — in a mud-spattered hat and spurs — drives his pickup along a rural highway, pointing out all the repairs where smuggling vehicles plowed through his fences.

"A lot of times they come and hit these gates," he says, motioning to a mangled metal gate. "You can see it's been knocked down a bunch."

In its 130 years of existence, the Jones Ranch has weathered hurricanes and droughts, fever ticks and screwworms, and lots of migrant traffic. But he says he's never seen so much human smuggling in the region. Jones estimates they've spent more than $30,000 just since January fixing dozens of breaks in their fences.

Undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America trekking on foot and packed into vehicles are heading north through South Texas in ever greater numbers. Some are dying along the way in the harsh, arid terrain.

Meanwhile, frustrated Border Patrol agents say they're so busy processing asylum seekers that they can't apprehend others who cross illegally.

And human smugglers, known as coyotes, have been bedeviling ranchers and local authorities. Jones says when the sheriff is in hot pursuit of a vehicle believed to be involved in human trafficking, the smugglers "just run through the fence."

Cowboys notice change after new immigration policies

"They drive as far as they can on the property and tearing down fences as they drive. The car stops and everybody bails out of the car. So that's why they call it a bailout," Jones says.

Cowboys on the Jones Ranch noticed a change as soon as the Biden administration came in and loosened immigration policies.

Unaccompanied minors and families traveling with children — who were expelled under former President Donald Trump — started crossing the border in increasing numbers to surrender to the Border Patrol.

But these asylum seekers are usually processed and released legally into the country to await their court dates. The migrants who are vexing ranchers are generally adult men looking for work or reunifying with families in the US who are being told by coyotes that now's the time to dash north while agents are busy with the kids and families.

"In some areas, up to 40 to 50% of Border Patrol resources have been pulled off the line to provide humanitarian assistance ... leaving large areas of the border unmonitored and unsecured," says Mark Morgan, who was the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection under Trump.

Morgan, now a visiting fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that CBP estimates there are 1,000 "gotaways" a day — people who successfully sneak across the border. A current senior CBP official confirms that unofficial estimate.

Asked to comment on the "gotaways" and troubles caused by the jump in human smuggling, a CBP spokesman said only that 300 agents have been detailed to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas from other parts of the country to help out with the current surge of immigrant traffic.

Morgan said the same cycle happened in 2019 — agents became preoccupied with asylum seekers and there was a surge in "gotaways" — but that now, it's worse.

Other ranchers across the rugged Texas borderlands have noticed, too.

"Increase in smugglers headed north"

John Saunders, whose family owns ranches north of Laredo, says unauthorized immigrants aren't being apprehended at the Rio Grande as much because Border Patrol agents have told him they aren't able to conduct their normal patrols. Instead, the coyotes are transporting the immigrants into the interior of the country, where local authorities are getting involved.

"You're activating more of the state troopers, the sheriffs and the local police," because of the increase in smugglers headed north, Saunders says. "When they get chased, they turn off the highway at full speed, break the fence and go until they can't go anymore. It ends up costing us a bunch of money."

Human smuggling also has other, more serious consequences than broken fences, says Whit Jones, who's parked under the welcoming shade of a mesquite tree. Jones says he's angry that migrants who just want to work are dying.

"The fences and all that, that's a problem for sure," he says. "But the bodies we're finding out here, that's what needs to be discussed. And that should be focused on more."

Nearby, an old Aermotor windmill clatters as it pumps water into a concrete cattle tank. The water source can save migrants trekking across this parched country — if they're lucky enough to find it.

In neighboring Brooks County, migrants trek through the unfamiliar ranchland to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 281. Often, they don't carry enough water and may be out of shape, and they can perish from dehydration.

Just since January, authorities in Brooks County have recovered 22 human remains that are presumed to be migrants dropped off by coyotes, compared to 34 migrants found dead in all of 2020.

"And I'm talking about bodies that died in the bush. We picked up, I think, three bodies in the last five days or so," says Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martinez. "And we still got the hottest months comin' up. This is April. We got June, July, August."

Martinez, whose county has a deadly reputation as a corridor for migrants headed to Houston, says what has changed this year is the recklessness of the smugglers.

In one brazen incident, a speeding truck full of migrants careened 15 miles straight across the backcountry, busting through barbed wire fences and spooking cattle the whole way. The maneuver was so crazy that even his deputies wouldn't pursue, and the vehicle got away.

"One of the differences is that they're more aggressive in terms of how they're coming through and knocking fences down and just being careless, because they have people in the vehicle and they don't care," Martinez says. "They're just driving through and they're driving hard."

It's gotten so bad that earlier this month in the town of Cotulla, located on Interstate 35 north of Laredo, school officials warned parents to be watchful of their children playing outside and walking home from school because the sheriff's department was conducting 8 to 10 high-speed car chases a day, often ending in bailouts.

Coyotes are "a danger to innocent bystanders"

In Zapata County, which shares 63 miles of border with Mexico, Sheriff Raymundo Del Bosque also sees the dangers in this spike in coyote activity. He says they used to have about one highway chase or bailout a week.

"Now it's once a day," he says. "It's a danger to innocent bystanders on our highways because these coyotes don't have regard for anybody."

Del Bosque recently signed a letter to the White House along with 274 other sheriffs from 39 states who are concerned about the border crisis.

"I just felt that President Biden needs to know that we're here on the border fighting for our country and to protect our citizens and not to forget about us," he says.

The increase in migrants tromping through brush country also alarms Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center. His organization, based in the Brooks County seat of Falfurrias, maintains a database to identify dead migrants, and sets out drinking water in flagged barrels beside the highway.

Canales and rancher Whit Jones would agree there has to be a better immigration policy than one that enriches smuggling cartels and imperils migrants.

"Think about it: If you regularize people, let 'em come through, give 'em safe passage," Canales says. "I mean, everybody's an essential worker anyway, and people are going to work! The policy needs to get away from enforcement and deal with the reality of migration."

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