Morning traffic through a border town in Texas marks the start of another work week as travel to and from Mexico is routine for many workers.
Away from the bustle of city life, hiding in thick brush and rocky terrain, are reminders of a crisis that has become part of that routine for the people of Del Rio.
“Eagle Pass area covers about 39 miles of border. Right now, we are averaging about 1,000 migrant apprehensions a day just in this area,” said Mickey Donaldson, patrol agent in charge of the Eagle Pass station.
The Eagle Pass area is part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Del Rio Sector, which is one of nine to make up the U.S.-Mexico land border and the busiest for illegal crossings.
In this exclusive report, Alpha News rode along with Agent Donaldson to see for ourselves what agents encounter.
“It does get tough day in and day out,” Donaldson admitted. “The pure volume of those coming across that border is just something we haven’t seen.”
For perspective, five years ago, 1,300 illegal migrants would make it here in a year.
Sometimes that many now arrive every day.
“We just work with the policies and the laws that are on the books,” Agent Donaldson said.
Nationally, border crossing encounters have climbed from 646,000 in 2020 to more than 2.7 million. In the last fiscal year, agents in this sector alone arrested nearly a half million border-crossers. Among them are more than 200,000 who got away.
‘It really opens your eyes’
We drive the steep, winding road the migrants take to make it to our first stop on the tour.
“This is where we had a large group of 381 migrants just today,” Donaldson said.
“One thing to look at is we’re going to drive to one area where they cross, it’s about two miles from here. That entire area is how far they have to walk up. That’s something we like to show everyone when you talk about the humanitarian factor,” he explained.
Years ago, agents would look for footprints to track. Now, the government has posted signs to show them where to go.
“We’re trying to point the migrant in the right direction to walk so we can get them in that area right there,” Donaldson said. “We’ve had infants who are with the parents or their aunts or uncles. We’ve also had people cross who are 90 years old. With walkers or wheelchairs, we have to find a way to get them up here. They’ve been left stranded on a riverbank waiting for us to go get them and rescue them.”
The two-mile trek eventually leads us to that riverbank.
“Right now we’re on the U.S. side, this is the Rio Grande River. That’s Mexico right across. This is one of our busiest crossing points right now. We’re seeing a lot of large groups come up here. This is a private ranch in Eagle Pass. Right in this area right here you’re looking at one of the busiest in the nation right now in the southern border,” Agent Donaldson explained.
Dirt roads near the river are piled with clothes and tangled in sea wire, a supposed security deterrent put up by the state of Texas.
“They’ll have a bag of clothes they’ll keep that’s dry [when] they make it across. They take off their wet clothes and start making their way. I think you have to come down here and see it. I think it really opens your eyes. You see what they leave behind and just the sheer amount of people we’re seeing every day,” Donaldson said.
For those who make it, it’s not an easy journey across the river.
“They might be carrying a large backpack with their stuff in it or a kid on their shoulders. The current is so fast. They’ll make it to the river, then they’ll run out of energy. We have our airboats that are out, they’ll come out and try to make a rescue,” Agent Donaldson said.
“Right now, as you see, the water’s calm, it’s pretty low. During times of hard rain or when they release water from the dam, you’ll see the water reach to the heights of the pillar right there. You’ll actually have migrants holding on to those pillars because the water is moving so fast,” he added.
We ride along next to another port of entry where the Texas National Guard is holding three migrants who just arrived.
Agent Donaldson asks the migrants in Spanish where they are from and where they are going.
“So, Dominican, Columbian, and Honduran right here,” he said, translating. “This man says he has three kids, he doesn’t have any work in the Dominican so he’s coming to work and get a better life, basically.”
He then asks where they are going. Boston and Florida are their replies.
Agent Donaldson explains how the man from Honduras, who is in handcuffs due to Title 42, will be sent back to his home country.
The policy automatically turns people away if they come from countries with communicable diseases. Del Rio’s border agents catch 200 of what they call “Title 42s” every day.
However, the policy will end within weeks because of a federal judge’s recent ruling.
A short time later on our tour, agents spot another group of crossers — this time 15 people, two families who just made it to the U.S. side.
They tell us they are going to Arizona, Florida, Miami, Kentucky, and Texas.
“So all over the country,” Agent Donaldson said.
Border patrol agents in this sector are spending about 60% of their time processing people coming over the border, but it’s those they are not catching due to time constraints who seem to trouble them the most.
“The goal is to get as many agents out in the field as we can and catch the traffic that’s trying to get away, not so much the give-up traffic,” Agent Donaldson said.
“The agents are very good at organizing each group — women, children, men, unaccompanied minors. That way we’re able to get them on one sheet of paper, get them on a bus and send them to the processing center,” Donaldson said.
Jose Tellez is the patrol agent in charge of the processing facility where migrants are taken first.
“So what you see here is we have a 150,000 square feet facility. It’s got all the in-service wrap-arounds,” Agent Tellez said. “On an average we can take an intake here of 1,200-plus every day.”
No outside video or photos are allowed inside but pictures provided to us show climate-controlled sleeping areas, washing machines, and processing computers to register and check people’s backgrounds.
Convicted sex offenders have been caught, along with drug smugglers.
Eagle Pass agents arrested a Mexican national with fentanyl and meth last month.
“We do biometrics, we do facial recognition database, we do iris, basically an eye database that we search them through. Then we have another team of agents that are vetting every return. So we run these fingerprints and facial recognition through several different databases,” Agent Tellez said.
“Our goal is to get the migrants out of our custody within 72 hours. We have looked at every process from the time we accept the migrants to the time we turn them over to our sister agency,” he said. “Our average time in custody at this facility from time of arrest all the way to the time that they are released or turned over to [Enforcement and Removal Operations] is approximately 30 hours.”
Agent Tellez admits the last couple of years have been difficult for agents. Resiliency programs are offered to those working long hours trying to keep up with the crowds.
“They understand this is the direction we’re going right now. We adopt to it and just wait for the next group of people coming through,” he said. “It’s important for everyone to understand what’s happening at the Southwest border. It is important for the story to make it out there.”
Citizen journalist speaks out
Auden Cabello is able to speak more freely on the border crisis.
“It deserves a lot more coverage. Like I said, what’s happening here is a microcosm of what is going to come to the United States in every community, if it hasn’t come already yet,” Cabello told us.
A professional photographer turned citizen journalist, his work has documented the dark reality.
“Right behind us is the Rio Grande River. This black fence is the President Bush wall. Right to my side is President Trump’s wall, just a difference in height and structure, and jokingly I also say behind me is Biden’s wall — you can’t see it because it’s nonexistent. That’s what’s led to this border crisis we are currently living; there is no border wall, there is no border and that’s why we have this constant stream of migrants coming on a daily basis,” Cabello said.
Cabello is a U.S. citizen who married a woman from Mexico seven years ago. Paperwork problems led to her green card being denied.
“At the time, we had to relocate to the Mexican side, to Mexico, because my wife could no longer be in the U.S. legally,” he said. “When we’re ready to file again that’s when COVID hit and everything was shut down. We had to wait [until] all the offices reopened. So right now, we’re in the process a second time to get her green card.”
Meanwhile, he watches hundreds, if not thousands, of people illegally enter the country every day.
“From a personal perspective, it just seems unjust, immoral, that I’m a U.S. citizen having to wait in Mexico to get my wife and family over to the U.S. legally, yet at the same time, on a daily basis there’s thousands coming across the border, entering illegally and getting a free pass into the country,” Cabello said.
“The question is: where’s the justice in all of this? Obviously, the process is broken. I think it should be easier for me and more difficult for those who are entering illegally. I’m just one case; there are hundreds of cases all along the border … going through the same situation,” he added.
Still, it’s the life and death struggle of migrants that he believes is more deserving of the spotlight.
“This is the cemetery in Eagle Pass, Texas,” Cabello said while pointing to one of his Instagram posts.
“I would constantly get messages from family members saying we’re missing a family member. So I started to dig into what was the process for them to get in touch with the sheriff, the funeral home, somebody in Eagle Pass so they could get information. I went personally to Eagle Pass and that’s how I ended up at the cemetery. When I showed up at the cemetery, there was 21 crosses made out of PVC piping and on the names it had John Doe, Jane Doe. These were all migrants that died either at the river or on private property and could not be identified,” he explained.
Border-crossing deaths have reached unprecedented levels in the past two years, climbing to more than 850 for the 2022 fiscal year.
“Now they’re having to use a refrigerator truck to store bodies. This is another aspect of having an open border. It’s a sad thing, but at the same time it’s something that’s underreported by the media,” Cabello said.
“Talking to migrants, especially female migrants, is one price they are having to pay is getting raped. They’re willing to pay that price so they’ll prepare for it, mentally and physically. What you’ll see also is what’s come to be known as rape trees — this is where the smugglers will rape the migrants, they’ll hang their bras or underwear on a tree as a trophy. Another sad part of this that I think gets underreported as well. This is what’s happening here on the border,” Cabello said.
He said deportations are an effective tool to slow the flow of illegal migrants coming across the border.
“The one tool that’s very effective is deportations. I saw it when we had the camp under our international bridge with the Haitians. As soon as the Biden administration started deporting the Haitians the flow immediately stopped. I think if any administration wants this fixed, deportation is the number-one tool to use,” Cabello said.
“What’s happening here is going to come to your community sooner or later. Some of those communities are already seeing it,” he warned. “All throughout Texas we’re hearing it. All throughout the U.S. we’re hearing of drug overdoses, crime rates going up. And I think it’s directly tied to what’s going on here at the border.”
Cabello doesn’t think the country can sustain this level of illegal immigration for much longer.
“If something doesn’t change, I think eventually this country could collapse. I do. Because I don’t see how it can sustain so many people. If it continues, I don’t see how the country can sustain so many migrants coming into the country illegally,” he said. “How much resources does a country have to support all of these migrants? It’s damaging the country.”