Tracking unauthorized migrants from above
November 24, 2014
Snaking along the southern tip of Texas, the wide floodplain of Rio Grande Valley has become the busiest point for illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border. Unauthorized migrants and smugglers sneak north through its patchwork of boggy marshes, dry riverbeds, and dense brush. After fording the river, they scale the border fence or find a break in it to slip through, doing their best to evade detection as they travel 80 miles or more to get around the major checkpoint in Falfurrias, north of McAllen.
Following President Obama’s Nov. 20 executive order lifting the threat of deportation for 4 million already in the U.S., traffic in the Valley may increase. “We have seen in other legalizations that it does have some ‘magnet effect’ encouraging more crossings,” says Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. immigration policy program at Migration Policy Institute. While Obama’s program explicitly excludes new arrivals, smugglers have spread misinformation in the past when the U.S. changed its policy. False promises made by smugglers led to a surge of Rio Grande migrants from Central America this summer. To counter this, the U.S. launched a marketing campaign. After Obama’s action, Rosenblum says, “there likely will be dueling information campaigns.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has already stepped up its presence in the Valley. More than 3,000 agents patrolled the area last year, 50 percent more than five years earlier. In 2011 the Border Patrol made almost 59,500 apprehensions out of about 123,000 crossings in the Valley. Roughly 27,000 crossings were “turn-backs,” who hustle back into Mexico when spotted; the remaining 36,000 were “got aways”—people who successfully slipped into the U.S. The river itself is a safe zone. Agents don’t have jurisdiction in its waters, so immigrants and coyotes often run back into the Rio Grande if they’re pursued on land. They’ll try again later. —Karen Weise