Amid rising migrant numbers, residents call for pathway to legal immigration

“There have always been problems on the border," one local said. "This is just a continuation of that.”

FAR WEST TEXAS — As the number of migrants crossing through the southern border and the Big Bend region climbs to heights not seen in recent years, there’s a growing sense of desperation among both locals and migrants themselves. Law enforcement officials report being overwhelmed, immigrants are perishing in remote corners of the region, and a group of West Texas landowners are organizing to demand reforms that could help alleviate traffic, property damage and thefts on their land.

Earlier this month, a meeting organized by landowners brought together around 50 local elected officials, law enforcement, state and federal politicians and concerned residents to discuss these issues and possible solutions. Calling themselves “Concerned Far West Texans for Legal Immigration,” they warn the region is facing a “dire” situation if desperate migrants and human smugglers continue to traffic through the area.

According to statistics from U.S. Customs & Border Protection, the increase in the Big Bend is driven largely by lone adult migrants. More than 10,000 adult migrants have crossed in the Big Bend so far this fiscal year, compared to around 2,500 this time last year.

The Big Bend has also seen the biggest increase in unaccompanied migrant children — up 165% since February 2020 — when compared to other southwest border sectors. Around 600 unaccompanied children have been apprehended in the Big Bend region since the fiscal year began in October 2020, compared to around 200 last year in that same time period.

The reasons for the increasing number of migrants is complex, with CBP citing “ongoing violence, natural disasters, food insecurity, and poverty in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America.” Fairly or not, some migrants may also sense that President Joe Biden will be more welcoming than former President Donald Trump, who instituted myriad policies aimed to keep immigrants from entering the United States.

The reality is more complex: Biden has removed some aspects of Trump’s immigration policy, like the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and border wall construction, while keeping others, including Title 42, which allows immigration officials to promptly deport migrants during a health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. Regardless, the MPP or “Remain in Mexico” policy — which required asylum-seekers to wait in makeshift camps in Mexico for their immigration hearings — has created a backlog of people eager to make their asylum claims and reunite with family in the United States.

While immigrants make the trip for a wide variety of reasons, resident Shelly Means says most of them are unprepared for the difficult terrain they will encounter in West Texas, calling it an “insane trek.”

In September, three migrants died while trying to cross through Presidio County. Then, in January, two more died of cold exposure near Sanderson. These are just a tiny fraction of the recent migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border. Border Patrol estimates hundreds of migrants die attempting to cross the southern border every year. “They think they can hike it — I’m sure they can better than any of us — but when they get in those weather conditions, that’s when they’re dehydrated,” Means said.

Officials from the Big Bend Sector of Border Patrol have long discussed their role as search and rescue, providing aid to immigrants who struggled along the rugged terrain in intense heat or cold, and blaming “coyotes” — the people migrants pay to secure safe passage into the U.S. — for mischaracterizing the trip.

“They’re promised a land of milk and honey when they get to Valentine,” Means said, “and, well, Valentine is nothing. You can’t buy a loaf of bread or a tank of gas.” The ranch Means owns is a frequent route for immigrant traffic, and as more have arrived, she says trash, clothes and even drugs litter the property.

Recently, Means encountered a group of Guatemalan men hiding out near her home. She offers to feed anyone who arrives at her door, knowing they’ve likely just traveled seven to nine days on foot. “I call the Border Patrol first, then I go render aid,” she said. “Then I pray the Border Patrol hurries up.”

“They don’t scare me, but what I am fearful for really is for my mom’s safety,” Means said. “My mom is almost 80 and she’s had people kick her door in, walking into her house demanding food.” It became a motivating factor for Means to gather the Concerned Far West Texans group.

Means also has had fires set on her property — and she’s not alone. Two Fridays ago, Albert Miller’s son saw a plume of smoke rising while in Valentine. Something on the family’s nearby Miller Ranch was ablaze, and the flames ultimately caused a loss of a structure on the property.

The culprit was an immigrant who had given up on their perilous crossing, and attempted to surrender by lighting a fire to draw Border Patrol’s attention and assistance. “The Border Patrol apprehended an immigrant there who reportedly confessed to setting the fire,” Miller said.

Miller, a managing partner of the family ranch, has lived in West Texas for more than 70 years. He doesn’t remember a time where this many people have traversed his land at once. “I don’t know that we feel less safe, but we’re probably taking it more carefully.”

“We’re certainly more aware of what’s going on, but as far as our day to day activities, it’s not changed a lot,” Miller said. “There have always been problems on the border, and this is just a continuation of that.”

He’s not sure what the solution is to prevent the trespassing or stop the property destruction that West Texas landowners are reporting. “I wish those people didn’t have to come to the United States; I wish they could make a living and be safe in their own country,” he said. “I think that’s wishful thinking, but I think they wish the same thing.”

In the petition by Concerned Far West Texans, the group outlines an increase in traffic that they say has led to delayed response times for an overwhelmed Border Patrol, fires that endanger livestock, home invasions and thefts. “We in no way want to keep them from coming to America for a better way of life. The stand that we are trying to make is that we want LEGAL IMMIGRATION,” the open letter reads. It asks for an immigration pathway that provides jobs to immigrants and provides a better quality of life for immigrants and for citizens that live on the border, ensuring a “sense of peace and security in our own homes and homelands.”

The letter, which has gained hundreds of signatures, also details a strain on law enforcement, saying response times from Border Patrol have slowed as more individuals are crossing at once.

“What it’s affecting is law enforcement, because they’re overwhelmed,” said Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez. Across the region, law enforcement say they’re handling more migrant situations as well as responding to related public-safety issues like the ranch fires.

This week, Dominguez’s department was involved in a car chase in Presidio that ended when the vehicle drove across a low spot in the Rio Grande and returned to Mexico. “We have those all the time now,” Dominguez said, referencing human smugglers evading law enforcement and leading them on high speed chases. “That’s one of my main concerns is that increase. I don’t want something tragic to happen to local citizens, visitors or those people we’re after.”

The same is true in Brewster County, where Sheriff Ronny Dodson estimates he and his deputies are encountering more than twice as many migrants as they were last year. He estimates the numbers started picking up around November and thinks the election of Joe Biden inspired some migrants to try their luck crossing. “When the election came,” he said, “they started coming.”And those are just the migrants they do find. Sometimes, “we find evidence where we missed what we call getaways,” Dodson said, including backpacks and empty water bottles.

In Presidio city, Police Chief Margarito Hernandez says he and his officers are also dealing with “a lot more migrants.”

“Also, the pursuits are increasing,” he said. “We rarely had pursuits before. Now, it seems like three pursuits a month — something like that.” He noted that undocumented migrants faced a heightened possibility “of becoming victims of abuse” as unscrupulous smugglers and workplaces try to dodge authorities. On Saturday, the department responded to a call about four migrants hiding in a house near town. (The Big Bend Sentinel has not yet seen an incident report on that case.)

The Biden Administration has taken steps this week to try to contain the influx of undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers, asking the defense department to open Fort Bliss in El Paso to house unaccompanied migrant children, and discussing the opening of a property named Target Lodge Pecos North to house 500 to 2,000 children temporarily, which matches the name of a property in Pecos.

Media is not being allowed entrance to the facilities temporarily housing migrants, but photographs and footage released by Congressman Henry Cuellar of a south Texas facility show immigrant children watching TV and sleeping on mats on the floor, all while tightly packed in spaces that offer little chance of social distancing during an ongoing pandemic.

Despite the risks, many are still braving the dangers of the journey — including people who have previously lived in the United States. The other day, Sheriff Dodson picked up a group that included a man who said he had lived in Oklahoma with his family. The man was arrested for a DWI and deported back to Mexico, where he was wary to even take trips to the grocery store for fear of being shaken down for bribes by Mexican military and police.

“They were lost and hungry — very hungry,” Dodson said. “They ate up all my emergency snacks.” But the former Oklahoman, he said, seemed “honest” and “very forthcoming” and had job skills. “He still has an ex-wife and kids in Oklahoma, and he wants to be close to them,” Dodson said. “There’s a lot of that.”

For opportunistic criminals, humans have become a “good commodity” for smugglers, Dodson said. But once the coyotes make it into the United States, they frequently abandon stragglers and leave migrants to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile, he said, regional businesses are struggling with labor shortages and “just can’t get help.” He thinks “some kind of reform or job program” could go a long way towards easing the rising number of undocumented immigrants, by offering desperate migrants a pathway to employment while keeping them off of private land and out of harm’s way.