Border Lines

Tracking unauthorized migrants from above


Luce has been documenting the border near McAllen, Texas, since 2006. This October she joined agents on helicopter patrols for the first time.

Luce has been documenting the border near McAllen, Texas, since 2006. This October she joined agents on helicopter patrols for the first time.


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


Dense vegetation makes some pathways hard to detect on the ground. “Everything is totally different from the air,” says Roderick Kise, a public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Dense vegetation makes some pathways hard to detect on the ground. “Everything is totally different from the air,” says Roderick Kise, a public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Agents suspected these footprints across a farm in Progreso were less than a day old. Much of the land along the border is privately owned.

Agents suspected these footprints across a farm in Progreso were less than a day old. Much of the land along the border is privately owned.

The legal port of entry between Reynosa, Mexico (left), and Hidalgo, Texas, considered the busiest thoroughfare for human smuggling in the U.S.

The legal port of entry between Reynosa, Mexico (left), and Hidalgo, Texas. Hidalgo county is considered the busiest thoroughfare for human smuggling in the U.S.

As part of Operation Strong Safety, Texas Governor Rick Perry is using state funds to send Department of Public Safety agents and National Guard members to the Rio Grande Valley.

As part of Operation Strong Safety, Texas Governor Rick Perry is using state funds to send Department of Public Safety agents and National Guard members to the Rio Grande Valley.

Agents searched for a driver who fled into the brush after his car was pulled over, north of La Joya. “The brush out there is insane,” Kise says.

Agents searched for a driver who fled into the brush after his car was pulled over, north of La Joya. “The brush out there is insane,” Kise says.

Helicopter crews spot trails from the air. They mark the location on their GPS and alert agents on the ground.

Helicopter crews spot trails from the air. They mark the location on their GPS and alert agents on the ground.

Agents have picked up a gallon water jug, which agents call

Agents found a gallon water jug, an indication that people have passed through the area.

As migrants tried to make it back to the river near Granjeño, the helicopter’s downdraft flattened out the brush and made the group easier to see.

As migrants tried to make it back to the river near Granjeño, the helicopter’s downdraft flattened out the brush and made the group easier to see.

The Rio Grande provided refuge for these migrants, who returned to the water after being pursued along the riverbank south of Roma.

The Rio Grande provided refuge for these migrants, who returned to the water after being pursued along the riverbank south of Roma.

Agents suspected this man was a coyote or drug smuggler, because he didn’t lose his cool when he was spotted. He undressed quickly, put his clothes into a plastic bag, and casually floated back across.

Agents suspected this man was a coyote or drug smuggler, because he didn’t lose his cool when he was spotted. He undressed quickly, put his clothes into a plastic bag, and casually floated back across.