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Undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America are heading north through south Texas in greater numbers. Many are on foot, while others are packed into smuggling vehicles. And some are dying along the way. Frustrated Border Patrol agents say they're so busy processing asylum-seekers, they can't catch the human smugglers or the migrants. NPR's John Burnett has this report from the Texas border.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: When immigration policy changes in Washington, it's felt immediately here on the Jones Ranch, about an hour's drive from the Rio Grande. Whit Jones, in a mud-spattered hat and spurs, drives his pickup along the highway, pointing out all the repairs where smuggling vehicles plowed through his fences.
WHIT JONES: A lot of times, they come and hit these gates. This gate's been fixed three, four, five times. You can see it's been knocked down a bunch.
BURNETT: 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 it's never been this bad. Jones estimates they've spent more than $30,000 just since January, fixing dozens of breaks in their fences. What's happening is more people are piling into smuggling vehicles. And if the sheriff gives chase...
JONES: What the car will do is just run through the fence. 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.
BURNETT: The Jones Ranch and many other landowners down here noticed the change as soon as the Biden administration came in and loosened immigration policies. Unaccompanied minors and families traveling with children who were ejected under the previous administration started crossing the border in huge numbers to surrender to the Border Patrol and ask for asylum. But they're not the ones vexing ranchers. Those are the migrants looking for work who are being told by coyotes now's the time to dash north while agents are busy processing asylum-seekers.
Mark Morgan, the former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, recently estimated as many as half of border agents have been pulled off their patrol duties to tend to kids and families in custody. He said CBP unofficially estimates a thousand people a day are sneaking across the border and getting away.
Whit Jones unlocks a gate and drives into a sandy pasture to park under the welcoming shade of a mesquite tree. An old windmill clatters nearby, filling a concrete cattle tank with water that has saved many a migrant trekking across this parched landscape if they're lucky enough to find it. Jones is angry that migrants who just want to work are dying.
JONES: The fences and all that - that's a problem for sure. But, you know, the bodies we're finding out here - that's what needs to be discussed. And, you know, that should be focused on more.
BURNETT: Unauthorized migrants trying to avoid capture are tromping through unfamiliar terrain. Some die of dehydration. In neighboring Brooks County, Sheriff Benny Martinez has already recovered 22 human remains since January. In all of 2020, there were 34 dead in his county.
BENNY MARTINEZ: And I'm talking about bodies that died in the brush already. We picked up, I think, three bodies in the last maybe five days or so. And we still got the hottest months coming up. This is April. We still got June, July, August.
BURNETT: Sheriff Martinez, whose county has a reputation as a deadly corridor for migrants heading to Houston, says it's going to be a rough year. Every day, his 911 dispatcher is getting these kinds of calls from alert motorists.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi. I wanted to report a illegal smuggling of people.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Being picked up or dropped off?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I just passed the checkpoint, and there's a white Ford Edge.
BURNETT: Martinez says what's changed in 2021 is the recklessness of the coyotes. In one brazen incident, a smuggling truck drove 15 miles straight across the backcountry, busting through barbed wire fences and spooking cattle the whole way. The maneuver was so crazy, even his deputies wouldn't pursue. The vehicle got away.
MARTINEZ: One of the differences - that they're more aggressive in terms of how they're coming through, OK, and knocking fences down and then just being careless because, actually, they have people in the vehicle, and they don't care. They're just driving through, and they're driving hard.
BURNETT: It's gotten so bad, earlier this month in the town of Cotulla, north of Laredo, school officials warned parents to be watchful of their children playing outside and walking home from school because local authorities were doing eight to 10 high-speed car chases a day, often ending in bailouts. Eddie Canales is also worried. He's director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, which sets out drinking water in barrels beside the highway for thirsty migrants. Canales and rancher Whit Jones would agree there has to be a better immigration policy than one that enriches the smuggling cartels and endangers migrants.
EDDIE CANALES: You can let people come through, give them safe passage. I mean, everybody's an essential worker anyway, and people are going to work.
BURNETT: Asked to comment on the growing frustration among South Texas residents, a CBP spokesman said 300 agents have been detailed to the Rio Grande Valley from elsewhere in the country to help out with the surge of immigrant traffic. John Burnett, NPR News.
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