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Enforcing the law at the border

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WORLD Radio - Enforcing the law at the border

Immigration is taking its toll on border patrol agents in South Texas


Border Patrol agents conduct an initial intact at the river’s edge after immigrants illegally entered the U.S. by wading across the Rio Grande. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: returning to the US/Mexico border.

Earlier this week you heard the stories of ranchers living in the Texas border town of Eagle Pass. They are dealing with unprecedented numbers of illegal immigrants crossing into South Texas.

Last year in just this area alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended nearly a half million people.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today, WORLD Radio correspondent Bonnie Pritchett returns to South Texas and brings us this report on the toll illegal immigration is taking on law enforcement.

AUDIO: [DISTANT HUM OF TRAFFIC]

CORRESPONDENT, BONNIE PRITCHETT: A bridge spanning the Rio Grande connects the cities of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico. Travelers must stop at border checkpoints before entering either country.

Below the bridge, a small band of travelers skirts the checkpoints and wades across the river. They step ashore and—illegally—enter the United States.

VOICES: Donde esta Venezuela? Venezuela. Guatemala. Nicaragua. Nicaragua…

They are met by Border Patrol agents, including Mickey Donaldson.

MICKEY DONALDSON: So, right now the water is real low as you can see the individual making the entry it's only up to his his ankles…

Donaldson is the agent in charge of the Eagle Pass North Border Patrol. It’s part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Del Rio Sector – a 53,000 square mile expanse of South Texas with 242 miles of river bordering Mexico.

MICKEY DONALDSON: See three really small children that came across so we see this all day, you know, with family units and single adults and just everything.

Eleven adults accompany the children. Two Border Patrol agents hand out white, plastic drawstring bags to hold the immigrants’ few worldly possessions. The agents collect them and give the immigrants a claim ticket they’ll use to retrieve their belongings after Border Patrol releases them.

DONALDSON: Right now, kind of already had the morning rush. We've seen a lot of migrant traffic in the morning…

About an hour earlier, along a different stretch of river, Border Patrol arrested 600 migrants. By day’s end, they will apprehend about a thousand more. Between 1500 to 2000 people are arrested each day in this region. That doesn’t include the 1000-plus people who are known gotaways.

Managing the border crisis requires coordination between local, county, and state law enforcement and Border Patrol. Governor Greg Abbott even deployed the Texas National Guard to assist.

Federico Garza served 26 years with the Texas Department of Public Safety and now serves as the Eagle Pass Police chief. He hasn’t seen anything like this.

GARZA: But in this situation a lot of folks are just crossing over the river. And and that's when it becomes a big problem because there's so many areas of searchers coming in. Border Patrol's strapped with the processes, Department of Public Safety and ourselves and the sheriff's office, we're trying to do the best we can to try to keep it under control. Our resources a stretch tremendously…

This year emergency calls to police and sheriff’s offices have increased, especially reports of trespassing.

If local police arrest an illegal immigrant, they don’t put them in jail. Officers hold them on location and call Border Patrol to pick them up.

GARZA: And wait for them to respond. And they're busy. And sometimes it takes a while. It might be hours, I fear its sometimes two hours, three hours for them to respond.

While officers wait, they aren’t on patrol or available to respond to emergency calls.

Texas lawmakers have provided funds to supplement local agencies. Chief Garza uses the money to pay overtime. He said the bigger paycheck doesn’t compensate for other, more significant, deficits.

GARZA: But the problem becomes when you're using the same personnel, you know, over and over and over again, pretty pretty much you you overwhelm them. It's just like we're working the same workhorse all the time…

Jason Owens, chief patrol agent in command of the Del Rio sector outside the  Boarder Patrol’s temporary processing facility. The 153,300 square foot soft-sided facility can hold 1000 people

Jason Owens, chief patrol agent in command of the Del Rio sector outside the Boarder Patrol’s temporary processing facility. The 153,300 square foot soft-sided facility can hold 1000 people Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

Jason Owens understands their frustration. He’s the chief patrol agent in command of the Del Rio sector.

OWENS: The Border Patrol is a border security agency. Our job in a nutshell is to keep bad things and bad people from coming into this country to do it, its people and our way of life harm. Now, because of the nature of our location and where we work, we also do an immigration mission. That, but that is by no means what defines us…

But it is taking up most of their time.

OWENS: The the surge that we see at the border, that comes at a cost in many different ways. Number one, it's dangerous for the migrants. And what that also does is it forces us to take on a humanitarian role performing search and rescue and some of the processing efforts that you saw right now in our processing facility. And when we're doing that, we can't be out on patrol doing the border security mission.

Chief Owens said operationally and emotionally, his 1,700 agents are overwhelmed, but diligent. So he bristles when they are maligned.

OWENS: So, I've been doing this for a long time. And I can tell you, I've had rocks thrown at me I've been spit on. I've been called a Nazi. I've been called a jackbooted thugs I've been called a racist. You see some of the hateful things that are that are said on social media. It's absolutely offensive to me, to have somebody I consider to be a brother or sister that just literally risked their life to save a migrant. And then have somebody call him a name like that. Yeah, that's absolutely. It's offensive in a way that I can't even articulate…

About 850 immigrants have died this past year trying to cross into the U.S. all along the Texas border. In September the rain-swollen Rio Grande swept away dozens of people trying to cross at Eagle Pass. Nine drowned.

The unsuccessful rescues and the body count have taken a toll on all law enforcement officers.

And not all souls are lost to the river. It’s their fate that weighs on Chief Garza’s officers.

GARZA: My officers’ distress was just seeing people walking around the streets, not having direction of where to go. And lost. Yes, that's it.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in Eagle Pass, Texas.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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