RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Illegal immigrants coming from Mexico used to cross into the U.S. through California. As the government put up fences and stepped up surveillance, immigrants found it easier to cross into Arizona. With that migration route now too difficult, the new entry point is Texas. This has left the Border Patrol and local authorities straining to deal with a surge of immigrants, not all of whom survive that journey. NPR's Ted Robbins reports from the American side of the Rio Grande River.
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TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: We begin in Reynosa, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas at Casa del Migrante, a Catholic-run shelter. It's a relatively safe place in what can be a dangerous city for migrants like Mario Torres. The soft-spoken 25-year-old has already traveled 1,500 miles from his home in Honduras. He paid fees to guides and bribes to bandits. Better than staying home, he says.
MARIO TORRES: (Foreign language spoken)
ROBBINS: I couldn't find work. I came with my wife, we came together the two of us, he says. The criminals they killed one of her brothers. We had to come because they were threatening us. Torres was a truck driver, his wife was a high school teacher. He says they had no choice but to escape the poverty and violence in Honduras, the country with the highest murder rate in the world. His wife is already in the U.S., with relatives in South Carolina. They paid smugglers a premium price for her to cross safely $13,000.
TORRES: (Foreign language spoken)
ROBBINS: I have a cousin in the United States, he says. She loaned us the money. And now she's working - my wife started working and paying it back little by little. Now, he's biding his time until he can cross. He'll need to pay a guide to ford the Rio Grande on a power boat, an oar boat, anything that floats.
DANNY TIRADO: A water jug or an inner tube or a bunch of dried logs tied together - whatever way that they can float across.
ROBBINS: Border Patrol Agent Danny Tirado drives me along the U.S. side of the river. It's a very different landscape than the Arizona desert, which has gotten most of the attention over the last decade. There, steel walls and mountain ranges separate the seemingly endless desert between the two countries. Here, the wide Rio Grande is the main barrier, though it twists and turns so much in places, border agents can't see around the next bend. The air is humid, the vegetation thick.
TIRADO: It's a lot of dense brush so, yeah, it is, it does make it easy for people to hide in that area.
ROBBINS: The Border Patrol has been beefing up its presence here. Over the last decade it's doubled the number of agents in the Rio Grande sector to roughly 3,000.
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ROBBINS: They even have a checkpoint 65 miles north of the border. It's in Brooks County, Texas, on the main road out of McAllen. Every vehicle stops here. It's been an effective way to catch drug smugglers. Few migrants try. Instead, human smugglers stop before the checkpoint and tell their clients to walk around it, right onto Linda Vickers ranch land.
LINDA VICKERS: I don't feel safe anymore out here. As you see, you know, I carry a pistol with me and cell phone when I go outside. It just shouldn't be like that.
ROBBINS: The Border Patrol checkpoint is Linda Vickers's nearest neighbor, about four miles away. The ranch is in grassland dotted with mesquite trees and scrub brush. We sit on the front porch of her large stucco ranch house surrounded by her dogs, and they stand at alert whenever they sense something.
VICKERS: I guarantee you they smell somebody.
ROBBINS: Linda Vickers says she sees groups of ten, 20, even 50 people every day.
VICKERS: It's the trespassing. It's like if you had a nice yard in a nice place and people were littering and tearing your fences and defecating and, you know, on your property, and you're finding all this, you'd be a little upset too.
ROBBINS: It's easy to see why people cross here. If they make it to the next pickup point, they've pretty much made it to anywhere in the U.S. But it's not a quick walk around the checkpoint, as smugglers tell the migrants. People can be out in the heat or the cold for days before they're picked-up again. Brooks County Chief Deputy Sheriff Benny Martinez sees the bodies of those who don't make it. Eighty-seven people died last year crossing Brooks County. And he calls that good news.
BENNY MARTINEZ: I call it good news absolutely compared to last year's 129. We're way down.
ROBBINS: He says deaths were down only because the weather was relatively mild. Brooks County has fewer than 10,000 residents. Martinez and his four deputies used to deal with relatively small matters - traffic, drunkenness, the occasional burglary or fight. These days, illegal immigration takes up more than 85 percent of the sheriff's workload and half the county budget.
MARTINEZ: It's been overwhelming. It's been frustrating. Frustrating, in the sense that you're trying to do what's right and you can't 'cause you don't have the resources to do it.
ROBBINS: Brooks County doesn't even have a medical examiner for the bodies. It relies on a neighboring county and on Texas State University to do autopsies and DNA tests so the dead can be connected with their families. Benny Martinez says he'd like to see the federal government pass a guest worker program so people can come legally. In the meantime, Brooks County is asking the government to reimburse its costs.
MARTINEZ: It has to come from Washington. I don't see Brooks County taking the whole burden of all this. It just doesn't make sense.
ROBBINS: It fits the government's strategy, though. Increase border security in one place so people cross in another place until it becomes too dangerous or too expensive. But they keep coming. Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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